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What Aon 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, Aon (NYSE: AON  ) .

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

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income $895 million $696 million $583 million $575 million $606 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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 $777 million $603 million $360 million $865 million $1.1 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash Aon 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 Aon has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends $200 million $175 million $165 million $171 million $176 million
Share Repurchases $828 million $250 million $590 million $1.9 billion $523 million
Total Returned to Shareholders $1.0 billion $425 million $755 million $2.1 billion $699 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. But combined with other rounds of share issuance, shares outstanding have actually increased:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions) 336 293 283 293 305

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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 Aon fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

This doesn't tell us much. Aon's buybacks have been sporadic, but its shares have been so range-bound that it's hard to gauge management's behavior toward market swings. 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 30% over the last five years, which increases to 39% 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 Aon's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

Add Aon to My Watchlist.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Aon. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Aon. 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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