Nobody would deny that Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) has hit a rough patch; but does that mean that shareholders should be worried about its dividend? Not for a second.
While Wal-Mart shined in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis thanks to its value-based business model, the current fiscal year has been tough for the retail giant. The most glaring issue is that comparable sales in its U.S. division have fallen in each of the last three quarters.
Despite this, there's little reason to conclude that its current performance will have any bearing on its dividend for the foreseeable future.
In the first case, the company continues to generate far more than enough free cash flow to cover current payments plus future increases. As its outgoing CEO Mike Duke recently noted, "Our global businesses consistently generate strong free cash flow, providing ample opportunities to fund growth across all our markets and to deliver strong returns to shareholders."
Beyond this, Wal-Mart's board is largely controlled by members of the Walton family, many of whom we can presume rely on the dividend to fund their lifestyles and charitable endeavors. Walton Enterprises, the family's private corporation, received a staggering $3 billion in dividends from its majority stake in the company during the last 12 months alone -- and that's excluding the considerable individual stakes that certain family members have in the company, as well.
Finally, the company has a demonstrated history of both paying and increasing its annual distribution -- most recently by 18% at the beginning of this year. As its website proclaims, "Walmart has increased its annual cash dividend every year since first declaring a $0.05 per share annual dividend in March 1974."
That's an impressive record and, for shareholders, the good news is that it isn't likely to end anytime soon.
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