Does Johnson & Johnson'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 Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) . 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, Johnson & Johnson 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 unpredictable 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, let's check on where Johnson & Johnson's dividend's 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 Johnson & Johnson'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 Johnson & Johnson's 3.1% 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 Johnson & Johnson'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 Johnson & Johnson's revenue growth relative to peers this year.

Foolish bottom line
Investors are flocking toward Johnson & Johnson's dividend for good reason, the company is about as stable as you'll find in the industry. While its payout ratios might look a bit high relative to pharmaceutical averages, defining Johnson & Johnson as a pharma company doesn't tell the complete story. Following the recent acquisition of Synthes, its medical devices business is actually a larger contributor to revenue than pharmaceuticals, and the company also sports a sizable consumer products segment. Because this balanced attack insulates Johnson & Johnson from the patent risks that are impacting so many of its peers, and given its pristine balance sheet with plenty of room for additional borrowing, it's a safe bet that this dividend is set to grow.
 

However, Johnson & Johnson's critics are convinced that the company is spread way too thin. If you want to know if J&J is nothing but a bloated corporate whale -- or a well-diversified giant that's perfect for your portfolio -- check out The Fool's new premium report outlining the Johnson & Johnson story in terms that any investor can understand. Claim your copy, which comes full of a year of free analysts updates, by clicking here now.


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