And so the trickle becomes a winter flood: Last week, by my count, over 20 stocks lifted their dividends for shareholders. Does this early gush portend a banner 2015 for companies hiking their distributions?
That'd be nice. Dividend increases are beneficial not only because they make investors a bit richer, but also because they often improve the share price of the affected stock. The market, after all, is usually willing to pay that much more for the extra payout.
Anyway, on to the chosen raisers for the week. Here are the three stocks I'm highlighting this time around.
The price of oil has gone down significantly in recent months, but the dividend from this technology services provider to the oil industry is gushing away. Schlumberger has lifted its quarterly distribution to $0.50 per share -- a sturdy 25% increase over the previous payout.
For a company so tightly chained to a business that has seen the price of its core commodity decline steeply, Schlumberger isn't doing too badly. In its just-reported Q4, it managed to keep its revenue and operating profit more or less steady on a quarter-over-quarter basis.
The weak oil price is, naturally, cause for concern. As per its habit, Schlumberger is battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to pass with a set of cost-cutting measures. These include an expected reduction in capital spending to roughly $3 billion this year from $4 billion in 2014.
Meanwhile, the firm's free cash flow is significantly higher than what it has handed out in dividends lately, and what's more, it has an excellent track record of paying regular, consistently rising distributions. Despite the developments in the oil price, we should assume the company will continue to manage its business -- and its cash -- effectively and be able to at least sustain its dividend.
Schlumberger's upcoming distribution is to be paid on April 10 to shareholders of record as of Feb. 11.
Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED)
"Con Ed," as it's known, is a longtime supplier of electricity, natural gas, and even steam to New York City and the surrounding area. It's also a longtime dividend-payer, having handed out a quarterly distribution since 1977. The upcoming payout will be 3% higher than its predecessor, at $0.65 per share.
That hike keeps the company in the elite club of companies known as the Dividend Aristocrats. These blue bloods are a select group of stocks that have raised their dividends at least once per year for the past 25 years.
Utility stocks appeal to investors who like sustained and predictable fundamentals that rise over time. So it is with this firm: In the first nine months of 2014 it saw a modest rise in revenues and -- thanks to only a modest rise in operating expenses -- a pleasant 22% year-over-year rise in net profit to $1 billion.
The company does, however, have a long-term debt position that has grown to eclipse those nine-month revenues. Further, it's been free-cash-flow negative recently.
Yes, Con Ed can easily borrow money at fairly advantageous rates, given its business profile, to help it fund those dividend increases. This should allow the company to keep its aristocrat status. But potential income investors should keep a wary eye on the company's balance sheet and cash flow.
Con Ed's upcoming dividend is to be dispensed on March 15 to holders of record as of Feb. 18.
Universal Insurance Holdings (NYSE:UVE)
This insurance group is starting 2015 by cranking up its quarterly dividend by 20% to $0.12 per share.
Universal has been broadening its horizons lately. Having formerly concentrated on its home market of Florida, it's now licensed in nine other states. A broader geographic reach means better results, it seems, because the company broke its quarterly records for revenues, earned premiums, and profit in its Q3.
The growth of the latter two measures was particularly strong, with earned premiums increasing by 37% year over year and net profit rising by almost 50%.
Meanwhile, not long ago, Universal began to change the structure of the investments it plows some of its premium monies into, opting for more conservative instruments. These are less risky than potentially volatile assets like the metals-related equities it used to buy in the old days.
Glancing at the cash flow statement, free cash flow has been strong in the past few quarters, far eclipsing what the company pays in dividends. The insurance business is always risky for income investors -- particularly for this firm, which has a strong presence in hurricane-susceptible Florida -- but at the moment, Universal can easily take care of its enhanced payout.
That dividend is going to be dispensed on March 2 to stockholders of record as of Feb. 18.