A conglomerate like General Electric (NYSE:GE) offers different things to different investors. Some gravitate to GE for its big bets on energy, while others appreciate the company's unique culture of innovation. And then there are those who just want a healthy dividend payout, which GE has maintained for over 100 years.
GE manages to fit the mold for each stripe of shareholder, but I would argue that the company has bent over backward for dividend enthusiasts since the recent economic meltdown.
In GE's 2012 annual report, for example, CEO Jeff Immelt stated, "We want investors to see GE as a safe, long-term investment. One with a great dividend." He went on to point out that, in terms of allocating cash, "The top priority remains growing the dividend." The dividend comes first, bar none.
As it continues to reposition itself as a manufacturing-heavy blue chip, here are three reasons dividend investors will continue to flock to GE.
1. Management shows shareholders the money
The first reason to feel optimistic about the dividend is that Immelt and company seemed to have learned a lesson from their banking identity crisis in 2008. The quote mentioned above, for instance, indicates that the sanctity of the dividend has imposed discipline on their cash management approach.
And if you think that's just lip service, consider some of the recent trends at GE:
- Between 2010 and 2013, dividends per share grew from $0.46 to $0.79 per share, an increase of 72%.
- GE's current and projected dividend yield is 3.5%, versus an industry average of 2.2%.
- Total cash returned to investors has jumped 176%, from $6.6 billion to $18.2 billion, between 2010 and 2013, including share buybacks and dividends paid.
Most important, GE's dividend is more than outpacing inflation, it's walloping it at a growth rate of 20% versus 2% since 2010.
2. The dividend's not breaking the bank
It's great to see the dividend growing at such an impressive rate, but investors also want to know that it will prove sustainable. The dividend cutback in 2009 was hard enough to swallow; any hint of another one would give this shareholder an ulcer.
A good way to gauge the affordability of the dividend is to look at the payout ratio as a percent of cash flow or earnings. At the end of 2013, GE's payout represented 54% of free cash flow per share, well below the preferred ceiling of 65%. From a different angle, the payout ratio stands at only 62% of 2013 earnings.
So far, GE's played its cards conservatively since the financial crisis, which has given it time to fortify its balance sheet and accelerate earnings. As a result, there's little reason to fret over the payout at its current trajectory.
What's more, investors can take comfort in the fact that GE is the second-richest company in America in terms of domestic cash on hand. Only Bank of America topped GE's $88.7 billion cash balance in 2013.
3. The company's strategy is sound
Finally, dividend investors want a growing, sustainable dividend to be supported by a competitive underlying business. And GE fits the bill here as well.
A durable competitive advantage -- also referred to as an "economic moat" -- is built on one of four main pillars: a strong brand, economies of scale, network effect, or high switching costs. It's hard to argue GE doesn't have clout in every one of these categories.
GE's brand is ranked as the sixth most valuable in the world according to the widely recognized Interbrand brand report. And when it comes to economies of scale, GE came to symbolize this phrase during the go-go days under Jack Welch's leadership, and size is still a differentiator today.
Finally, as I've pointed out before, GE's future profits will depend heavily on network effects and the high hurdles imposed by switching costs. Put simply, GE's making substantial investments to offer follow-on maintenance services for its equipment around the world. It's also betting big on predictive tools like the industrial Internet.
The more places that GE operates in, the easier it is for customers-such as airlines or oil companies-to rely on its expertise when something goes wrong. Likewise, GE's software will impose huge switching costs when companies take advantage of the power of "big data" and analytics to reduce downtime on their machines.
All things considered, GE has a strong edge in manufacturing, which is crucial as it looks to distance itself from its banking days of old.
Why it's not too late to hop on GE's dividend train
We Fools have been singing the praises of dividend stocks for years, and perhaps more so than ever since the financial crisis. When investors like us crave stability, steady payouts provide it.
GE management got this message and shored up the company's balance sheet. Looking ahead, GE's dividend is backed by a pile of cash and a sturdy business. For those who've sat out thus far, it's not too late to get on board.
Isaac Pino, CPA, owns shares of General Electric Company. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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