What: Shares of CenturyLink (NYSE:CTL) fell 12.4% in May 2016, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. The month started with a mixed first-quarter report alongside disappointing forward guidance. Later, the company surprised absolutely nobody when it announced quarterly dividends at exactly the level investors have come to expect.
So what: First-quarter earnings beat analyst expectations, and sales were in line with Wall Street's projections. Analysts didn't make that bar very high, though. The satisfactory revenue line fell 1.1% year over year, and it took only a 6% earnings increase to produce this bottom-line surprise.
Looking ahead, management set the high end of its second-quarter earnings guidance range below the average Street estimate. This is the stuff that share-price plunges are made of, and the stock dipped 9% lower on the news.
A couple of weeks later, CenturyLink announced its next dividend payout. For the 14th straight quarter, shareholders will get $0.54 per stub. Investors may have been hoping for a rare bit of dividend growth here, because share prices fell another 2% on an otherwise quiet market day.
Now what: Regional telecoms like CenturyLink are often seen as solid dividend plays. At first glance, this ticker does fit that bill, thanks to a generous 8% dividend yield.
But that yield was built on frozen payouts and stagnant share prices, not the far more attractive combination of dividend checks that simply outgrow a healthy stock price trend.
Sadly, CenturyLink doesn't have a whole lot of room for dividend boosts. The company already funnels a staggering 128% of its trailing earnings into dividend payments. If there's a silver lining to that chilling metric, the payout ratio stood as high as 170% just four quarters earlier.
So I understand if CenturyLink investors are growing weary of these exceedingly stable dividend checks. As for the disappointing second-quarter guidance, management pointed to decent growth in high-speed data services balanced against a large but shrinking portfolio of low-speed legacy services. It's the same old story you'll find in every corner of the telecom industry nowadays. The company has nowhere to hide, and the coming quarters are likely to continue these grim trends.