Sure, Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) pays a regular dividend. But the entertainment giant's dividend policy only accounts for 20% of trailing earnings and 23% of free cash flows, which leads to a surprisingly wimpy dividend yield, just 1% at Thursday's closing price.
Is that the right balance, or should the House of Mouse raise its dividend payouts faster?
Three Motley Fool contributors put their heads together to examine Disney's dividend strategy. Here's what they came up with. Spoiler arlet: You'll find a three-way consensus.
Andrés Cardenal: I believe Disney should raise its dividends, and I also think the company will in fact continue raising its dividends, not only in 2014, but also many years down the road.
Disney is quite an exceptional player in the entertainment industry. The company owns the rights to benefit from many of the most popular fictional characters around the world, from Mickey Mouse to Darth Vader. Besides, brands such as ESPN, ABC, and Disney itself are key differentiating factors for the company.
In addition, Disney monetizes its assets through multiple business segments, including movies, entertainment parks, and merchandising, among others. For instance, a blowout success such as Frozen sets the stage for widely demanded live shows and massive merchandise sales.
This fundamental quality allows Disney to generate tons of cash -- the business produced nearly $6.5 billion in free cash flow during the fiscal year ending on Sept. 27. Management allocated $6.5 billion to share buybacks and $1.5 billion to dividends during the year, so buybacks currently have a priority over dividends when it comes to capital distributions.
Still, both buybacks and dividends are poised to continue growing over time. The company raised its dividends every year from 2010 to 2013; what was an annual payment of $0.35 in 2009 has increased to $0.86 in 2013. Chances are investors in Disney will be rewarded with another dividend hike in December of this year.
Anders Bylund: Disney CEO Bob Iger is very clear about his shareholder-friendly capital strategy. In 2013, he explained it in so many words: "We will have the great problem of dealing with increasing cash flow as the years go by," Iger said. "We are not departing from kind of the formula we have used in returning capital to shareholders, where we have consistently returned 20% or so of the cash generated by the company to shareholders in terms of buybacks."
As Andrés already noted, Disney spent $1.5 billion on dividend checks, but $6.5 billion on share buybacks. This is consistent with Iger's stated strategy.
It's also completely bonkers.
Buybacks make sense when shares seem undervalued. When share prices are rising quickly regardless of management's buyback actions, buybacks are often a terrible use of fresh capital. It's kind of hard for a mature company like Disney to go wrong with big dividends, on the other hand.
Now, Disney is unlikely to copy the Netflix maneuver exactly, having no need for emergency cash. As a Disney shareholder, I appreciate the optimism built into this massive buyback program, but I'd hate to see it turn into a textbook example of badly spent capital.
I already learned that lesson as a Netflix investor. No need to repeat that horrible experience. Shifting some of that capital into stronger dividends would be a very welcome change of plans.
Joe Tenebruso: I agree with Anders and Andrés that Disney should raise its dividend. The diversified entertainment giant's treasure trove of timeless brands and hard-to-replicate assets generates gobs of cash flow year after year. And with a payout ratio of only about 20%, Disney can easily afford to increase its dividend significantly, while retaining more than enough to reinvest in the business and fuel further growth.
The one point I'd argue is that I'm not opposed to further buybacks. That's because one way to look at share buybacks is as tax-efficient dividends to shareholders. And as long as shares are repurchased at reasonable prices -- something Disney has proven adept at (the company purchased 84.4 million shares last year for an average price of $77, and shares trade 18% higher today) -- buybacks can be an excellent way for a business to return capital to its owners.
I believe Disney's stock is still attractively priced, so I'm in favor of continued buybacks, especially ahead of the upcoming release of the new Star Wars films that I think could propel Disney's share price over $100.
All told, the Disney empire is a cash flow machine that should deliver excellent returns to shareholders in the form of buyback-supported stock price appreciation and substantially higher dividend payments for years to come.