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Will I Regret Selling SSE?

By Malcolm Wheatley - May 28, 2013 at 5:00PM

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It may be time to sell out of SSE.

LONDON -- In early 2012, I bought into electricity utility SSE ( SSE 0.65% ), attracted by its strong dividend history, reasonable valuation, and high yield -- just shy of 6%, well ahead of the FTSE All-Share's average of 3.5% or so. It would, I judged, make an ideal addition to my growing income portfolio.

And if you're a fellow SSE investor, then the odds are good that you, like me, were attracted by the SSE board's self-described "obsession" with dividend payouts to investors.

Hear it straight from the horse's mouth -- SSE itself: "We have just one strategic priority: sustained real dividend growth. SSE is one of just five FTSE 100 companies to have delivered a real dividend increase every year since 1999. Not only that, but we are ranked 10th among continuing FTSE 100 companies for Total Shareholder Return over that period."

Today, I'm up 25% -- having banked some juicy dividend payments along the way. But I'm contemplating selling, following the publication of troubling research.

All change
Simply put, analysts at investment firm Miton have compared SSE's dividend growth with the growth in the company's free cash flow -- and found that dividends have been increasing faster than have the funds to pay for them.

The difference is made up by borrowings. And, what's more, by a form of borrowing that doesn't impact on the company's apparent gearing: 'hybrid capital', disclosed in a footnote in the accounts.

According to Miton, SSE has paid for dividends out of borrowings since 2008 -- and the "true" cash flow to shareholders has been negative since 2004.

A number of other utilities have been pursuing similar tactics -- among them National Grid,PennonUnited Utilities and Severn Trent.

So is it time to sell -- and put the proceeds to work elsewhere, in a share that is funding dividends from actual cash flow? This is, I have to say, something I'm actively contemplating.

Follow the money
Of course, in your own case, whether this research -- together with the current elevated share price and SSE's undoubted strong dividend history -- combine to make SSE a buy or a sell is something that only you can decide.

But if you are mulling selling your stake, and are interested in other high‑quality companies with growth opportunities, this exclusive wealth report reviews five particularly attractive blue chips that have been carefully compiled by the Motley Fool's expert stock pickers.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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