Does AstraZeneca's Dividend Have Room to Soar?

With interest rates still sitting near record lows, investors looking for current income have been forced to move from fixed-income positions and into stocks to find yield. To help offset those risks, one of the first things dividend investors do is look for companies operating in stable, growing industries, like AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN  ) . But before doing the foolish thing and taking this dividend for granted, let's take a closer look at whether it's truly worthy of a spot in your portfolio.

Health is priceless; health care isn't
As a pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca benefits from many of the unique elements of the industry that make it attractive for dividend investors. We all know it's impossible to put a price on one's health and well-being. Because of that, and due to the unbearable cost of emergency health problems, insurance companies and government entitlement programs have taken over as the gatekeepers of health-care spending around the world.

But, the industry's high costs didn't just appear out of thin air. Partly to blame is the fact that our insurance systems have effectively masked the direct costs of health care by turning the system into a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet, removing most of the consumer-driven pricing mechanisms that exist in practically every other industry. This dynamic, along with the aging and increasingly unhealthy society that we're all well aware of, is a key reason health-care spending will continue to grow.

But, while these big picture trends might be driving the overall industry, investors looking at specific health-care dividend stocks need to dig a layer deeper to understand the company-specific issues at work. After all, dividends aren't a guarantee and, if the going gets tough enough, even a "stable" health-care stock could cut -- or eliminate -- its dividend. With that being said, let's check on where AstraZeneca's dividend has been, and try to determine where it's going.

Payout Ratios
A quick-and-dirty technique for checking a dividend's sustainability is taking a look at something called the payout ratio. Typically, this is expressed as a percentage, looking at a company's dividend per share relative to its net income per share. That's a decent start, but I prefer to use a slightly different measurement that replaces net income, an accounting measurement, with something more tangible -- cold hard cash. The chart below shows how much of AstraZeneca 's free cash flow has been eaten up by its dividend payments over the past two years. The lower the better, suggesting more capacity for future dividend hikes.

Valuation
Not all dividends are created equal. At first glance, a high dividend yield may look nice, but all too often it means a problem is lurking around the corner for a business. Looking at AstraZeneca 's 6.1% dividend yield in isolation only tells half of the story, which is why investors need to have an understanding of how the market perceives a company prior to buying a stock. We can do this by comparing a few financial multiples, like price to earnings, to its peers in the industry.

Future Growth
Up to this point, we've looked at AstraZeneca 's dividend in the past, and we've also seen how its stock is being perceived by the market today. However, the most important factor to consider when understanding a dividend's future is where the company's cash flow is heading. It's hard to generate more cash without growing sales, so let's take a look at what industry analysts are expecting for AstraZeneca 's revenue growth relative to peers this year.

Foolish Bottom Line
Over the next few years AstraZeneca is facing the patent expiration of Nexium and Crestor, two drugs that alone accounted for more than 36% of last year's revenue. That's a serious challenge, and one that's reflected in a discounted valuation relative to its dividend-paying peers.

I'm hopeful AstraZeneca's new CEO Pascal Soriot will make the right moves going forward, but, unfortunately for dividend investors, that's unlikely to mean bigger dividend payout in the near-term. In fact, it's quite likely that he'll be forced to cut the dividend over the next few years unless something is done to reverse, or at least mute, the effects of these patent expirations.

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