As Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) share price inches closer to a new 52-week high, it's clear that both investors and analysts like what new CEO Satya Nadella and team are doing. Nadella's "mobile-first, cloud-first" mantra is taking hold, and shareholders are reaping the benefits, including another dividend hike in Sept. But was it enough? Two of our Motley Fool contributors got together to discuss Microsoft's recent $0.03 a share dividend hike, and what investors might be able to expect in the future.
Bob Ciura: There is little doubt that Microsoft is a strong dividend-paying stock. The company raises its dividend every year like clockwork, and yields a solid 2.5%. But I don't think Microsoft should raise its dividend right now. Not because it can't, but rather because it just raised its dividend by 11% back in September. Microsoft typically increases its dividend once per year, and I'd expect the company to stick to that timetable.
Another reason why I believe Microsoft will wait until next year to raise its payout is that earnings growth has slowed a bit in the past year. Microsoft's earnings growth in the 2015 fiscal first quarter was just 4% after stripping out restructuring expenses.
It's true that Microsoft is growing revenue at a high rate -- revenue grew 25% last quarter, as the company hit it out of the park with its cloud-based initiatives like Office 365 -- but earnings growth is coming in light, as Microsoft has had to spend a lot of money getting its cloud services off the ground. Operating expenses, which include research and development as well as sales and marketing, increased expenses 28% last quarter. As long as operating costs outpace revenue growth, it's reasonable to think the company will take a conservative stance on the dividend.
Microsoft is still a great pick for income investors because of its above-average current yield and high dividend growth. However, investors hoping for a second dividend increase in as many quarters are probably getting ahead of themselves.
Tim Brugger: Admittedly, suggesting Microsoft bump its dividend payout seems counter-intuitive, coming just a couple of months after it announced a $0.03 a share increase. Also, Microsoft's 2.5% dividend yield is among the best in the tech sector. But there are a few factors worth considering before shareholders totally discount the notion of a dividend hike.
Along with Microsoft's stellar fiscal 2015 Q1 results -- all-important cloud revenues jumped dramatically, and Surface sales more than doubled compared to the year-ago quarter, among other positives -- its balance sheet was stronger. Last quarter alone Microsoft added nearly $3.5 billion to its already impressive $85.7 billion in cash and equivalents, and now has over $89 billion in cash and equivalents -- and that's just here in the states. Taking into account Microsoft's 8.25 billion shares outstanding, the additional $0.03 a share dividend amounts to a mere $247.5 million quarterly.
As for overseas, Microsoft also has about $93 billion in ready cash, $16.5 billion more than a year ago. Of course, bringing that horde stateside to pay shareholders a dividend would open up the tax floodgates, but it paints the picture of a company swimming in cash. And there's more: Microsoft's free cash flow (FCF) last quarter was $7.07 billion, and that included a $1.14 billion "integration and restructuring charge." Add the charge back, and Microsoft's quarterly FCF jumped approximately $1.2 billion compared to 2013.
Microsoft is doing the right things for its shareholders, upping its dividend payout and buying back $40 billion of shares last year, for instance. But taking its outstanding balance sheet into account -- both here and abroad -- along with Microsoft's impressive free cash flow, the question remains: is $0.31 a quarter enough for its long-suffering shareholders? The answer, and this comes from a longtime Microsoft bull, is no, it's not.
Bob Ciura has no position in any stocks mentioned. Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. 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.