What ConAgra 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, ConAgra (NYSE: CAG  ) .

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

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income $673 million $668 million $721 million $554 million $433 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. When a company runs a cash-flow deficit, money is pulled from savings, or raised through debt or equity financing:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow $834 million $836 million $1.1 billion ($518 million) $12 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash ConAgra 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, used to invest in other companies and assets, or to pay off debt.

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

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends $387 million $366 million $343 million $356 million $360 million
Share Repurchases $263 million $762 million -- $1.0 billion $303 million
Total Returned to Shareholders $649 million $1.1 billion $343 million $1.4 billion $662 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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) 413 438 444 463 490

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

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Not too bad. Buybacks did dry up in 2009 when shares plunged, but that was after a big repurchase in 2008 after shares had already dropped considerably. Given reasonable valuations, most of ConAgra's buybacks over the last few years have likely been a decent deal for shareholders.

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

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned 4% over the last five years, which increases to 25% with dividends reinvested -- a nice boost to top off otherwise low 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 ConAgra'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. 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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