LONDON -- When the country's finest dividend investor took a swing at the U.K.'s greatest dividend behemoth, it caused quite a dust-up.
Last week, the Fool's own investment heavyweight, Maynard Paton, also joined battle, backing what he called "the most contentious sell decision in the market today."
Poor Vodafone. After years of sterling dividend service, it deserves better. Somebody should come to its defense. And here I am.
Woodford listed four reasons to sell Vodafone. Falling revenues in southern Europe, the decision to deny shareholders the Verizon Wireless dividend, concerns about data-service profits, and dividend cash flow cover falling to dangerous levels.
Woodford apparently sold Vodafone at 1.71 pounds. Earlier this week it traded at 1.90 pounds. Despite Woodford giving it his best shot, Vodafone is neither down nor out. In fact, it's risen up to 11% in four months.
Did Woodford's punches really connect?
Below the belt
That first jab at Vodafone was a low blow. I mean, if you sold every stock in the FTSE 100 with falling southern European revenues, your portfolio would empty in a hot minute. Blame the misconceived single currency, Vodafone is innocent.
So what about that Verizon dividend? Sure, it's a pity Vodafone didn't dish out the 2.1 billion pound Verizon dividend to investors in May, but maybe that money is better spent buying airwaves to run 4G networks.
Vodafone is due to start rolling out its British 4G network this summer, and aims to offer 40% coverage in its five main European markets by March 2015, all of which costs money.
On a current yield of 5%-plus, dividend investors are already doing very nicely as it is.
Will data services generate enough profits? Full-year results, published last month, showed a 14.4% rise in data revenue in northern and central Europe, as smartphone penetration nears 36% in the region.
Data revenue even rose 9.7% in southern Europe, despite the euro, and grew strongly in emerging markets such as India (19.8%), South Africa (16.1%), and Egypt (29.6%). That may not be good enough for Woodford, but it's good enough for me.
Finally, Woodford is worried that cash flow cover for the dividend has fallen to "uncomfortably low levels."
To be fair, that worries me too.
Full-year results show free cash flow falling 8.1% to 5.6 billion pounds. Yes, you read that right: 5.6 billion [punds. That's an awful lot of cash flow.
Vodafone still churns out money. Management recently proposed a final dividend of 6.92 pence per share, giving a total dividend of 10.19 pence per share, a rise of 7%. Which wasn't bad for a company that is supposed to be on the ropes.
I accept the dividend may come under pressure, but with the yield topping 5% it is still 50% higher than the FTSE 100 average of 3.6%.
Forecast earnings-per-share growth of 4% to March 2014 and 7% to March 2015 also look pretty solid, leaving Vodafone on a modest 12.3 times earnings, just below the FTSE 100 index average of 12.75 times.
Clearly, some people still want to own Vodafone. And I'm one of them. So is Citigroup, which has just reiterated its buy recommendation, with a target price of 2.15 pounds.
For long-term dividend glory, Vodafone looks like a contender to me.
Anyway, to find out which stocks Neil Woodford does like, you can download our in-depth report, "Eight Top Blue Chips Held By Britain's Super Investor."
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