What Monsanto Does With Its Cash

In the quest to find great investments, most investors focus on earnings to gauge a company's financial strength. This is a good start, but earnings can be misleading and incomplete. To get a clearer understanding of a company's ability to earn money and reward you, the shareholder, it's often better to focus on cash flow. In this series, we tear apart a company's cash flow statement to see how much money is truly being earned and, more importantly, what management is doing with that cash.

Step on up, Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) .

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. Monsanto's net income over the last five years has been impressive:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income $1.6 billion $1.3 billion $1.5 billion $2.2 billion $1.5 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. * Year ended Nov. 30.

Next, we add back in a few non-cash expenses, like the depreciation of assets, and adjust net income for changes in inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable -- changes in cash levels that reflect a company either paying its bills, or being paid by customers. This yields a figure called "cash from operating activities" -- the amount of cash a company generates from doing everyday business.

From there, we subtract capital expenditures, or the amount a company spends acquiring or fixing physical assets. This yields one version of a figure called "free cash flow," or the true amount of cash a company has left over for its investors after doing business:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow $2.7 billion $2.0 billion $0.2 billion $1.4 billion $2.6 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. * Year ended Nov. 30.

Now we know how much cash Monsanto is really pulling in each year. Next question: What is it doing with that cash?

There are two ways a company can use free cash flow to directly reward shareholders: dividends and share repurchases. Cash not returned to shareholders can be stashed in the bank, invested in other companies and assets, or used to pay off debt.

Here's how much Monsanto has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends $612 million $589 million $578 million $491 million $328 million
Share Repurchases $261 million $789 million $248 million $514 million $247 million
Total Returned to Shareholders $873 million $1.4 billion $826 million $1.0 billion $575 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *Year ended Nov. 30.

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. That's caused shares outstanding to fall:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions) 536 540 546 549 546

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *Year ended Nov. 30.

Now, companies tend to be fairly poor at repurchasing their own shares, buying feverishly when shares are expensive and backing away when they're cheap. Does Monsanto fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Not bad. There is some quarter-to-quarter volatility, but it doesn't look like management's buyback behavior is dictated by market swings. That's what you want to see. Given reasonable valuations, these buybacks have likely been a good deal for shareholders.

Finally, I like to look at how dividends have added to total shareholder returns:

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned 45% over the last five years, which increases to 55% with dividends reinvested -- a nice boost to top off already decent performance.

To gauge how well a company is doing, keep an eye on the cash. How much a company earns is not as important as how much cash is actually coming in the door, and how much cash is coming in the door isn't as important as what management actually does with that cash. Remember, you, the shareholder, own the company. Are you happy with the way management has used Monsanto's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Monsanto. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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