Once the Street's hottest growth stories, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) are now undeniably dividend stocks. But which tech giant offers dividend investors better prospects? Given Microsoft's recent decision to boost its dividend by 22%, as well as Apple's price change, dropping from $500 to about $460 since the company launched its new iPhones, the dividend battle between the two is as heated as ever.
To identify the winner, let's first see how the two companies face off on key metrics used to analyze dividend stocks.
Microsoft's move to boost its dividend significantly improves the company's dividend yield, from 2.8% to 3.4%. Apple's yield trails meaningfully behind at 2.7%.
Of course, there's more to dividend stocks than dividend yield. Investors want to ensure that a dividend is sustainable. Analyzing a company's payout ratio helps an investor gauge a dividend's durability.
A payout ratio is simply a company's annualized dividend divided by its annualized earnings. The lower the ratio, the less likely the company will decrease the dividend if earnings take a tumble. Additionally, the lower the payout ratio, the more room the company has to increase the dividend going forward.
Apple's payout ratio, at 28%, is slightly better than Microsoft's, at 36%. But both are impressively low. Consider dividend stalwarts Waste Management and Johnson & Johnson, with payout ratios of 80% and 56%, respectively.
Apple boasts significantly more cash than Microsoft -- $146 billion compared to Microsoft's $77 billion. On a per-share basis the playing field is a bit closer: Apple's cash hoard accounts for about 35% of its share price and Microsoft's cash accounts for about 28% of its share price. Still, Apple's cash per share is meaningfully higher than Microsoft's.
With both companies scoring closely on basic dividend metrics, we need a tie-breaker, and when you zoom out and take a look at each company's respective market, the tides seem to be in Apple's favor.
Microsoft's Windows and Business (Microsoft Office) divisions together accounted for 58% of the company's operating income in its most recent quarter. Both of these divisions are heavily tied to the struggling PC industry. IDC estimates that worldwide PC shipments from the top five vendors declined 11.4% in the second quarter of 2013 compared to the year-ago quarter.
Though Apple may currently be struggling to boost EPS comparisons thanks to lower profit margins and tough sales comparisons, sales could easily pick up again. And IDC's expectations for tablet and smartphone shipments (two categories that make up 69% of Apple's business) are far more optimistic than its forecast for PC shipments. IDC estimates a compound annual growth rate of 13.3% for worldwide smartphone shipments between this year and 2017. The research firm is even more bullish when it comes to tablets, forecasting a compound annual growth rate of about 16% for the same period.
Given that Apple and Microsoft are on nearly equal footing when it comes to dividends, I'd rather go with the stock in a growing industry. Even more, with pessimism lurking over Apple's conservative valuation, any catalyst in Apple's story could result in significant upside.
Apple is the better dividend stock, and the recent sell-off makes it even tastier.