Succeeding in the markets over the long haul becomes a lot easier when investors can identify great companies that are also shareholder friendly. That's because companies that embrace shareholder-friendly activities like paying dividends have historically outpaced their non-dividend-paying peers. We asked three Motley Fool analysts to tell us which companies they believe are best at putting shareholders first. Read on to learn which companies they picked.
Leo Sun: AT&T (NYSE:T) is a classic dividend pick for conservative income investors. It's a Dividend Aristocrat (a company that raised its dividend annually for over 25 consecutive years) and pays a hefty forward annual dividend yield of 5.7%.
A stock's payout ratio (the percentage of earnings or free cash flow paid to shareholders) is a common benchmark of a company's "generosity." Over the past 12 months, AT&T paid 55.8% of its net income and 84.4% of its free cash flow to shareholders as dividends. By comparison, Verizon Communications(NYSE:VZ) paid out 42.4% of its net income and and 45.8% of its free cash flow. While AT&T's payment ratios seem more generous, lower payout ratios also mean that Verizon has more freedom to raise its dividend in the future.
AT&T bought back nearly $3.5 billion in stock over the past 12 months. During that period, Verizon bought back only $43 million in shares. Although I'm not a fan of buybacks, since they often artificially inflate the price of a stock, they nonetheless boost shareholder value by reducing the number of outstanding shares.
Looking ahead, AT&T could face challenges while integrating DirecTV (NYSE:DTV.DL) -- which it is trying to buy for $48.5 billion -- into its core telecom businesses. But I believe that those growing pains won't affect long-term income investors, who have been generously paid for nearly three decades.
Dan Caplinger: Among pharmaceutical stocks, Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) stands out as making several key moves to put shareholders first. The drug giant consistently ranks among the top stocks in the Dow Jones Industrials for its dividend yield, which currently stands at 3.5%. Pfizer traditionally had a strong history of consistently raising dividends, joining the ranks of the Dividend Aristocrats and eventually amassing a 41-year streak of annual dividend increases. The company gave up that distinction when it slashed its payout in 2009 following the Wyeth acquisition, but Pfizer has since given shareholders steady dividend increases in the 8%-10% range each year.
In addition to its dividends, Pfizer has sought other ways to boost its profits for shareholders' benefit. Its courting of AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) could have taken advantage of the money-saving tax inversion strategy, and Pfizer continued to seek ways to acquire the British drug-maker for months before finally accepting AstraZeneca's unwillingness to accept a deal. Instead, Pfizer announced a massive $11 billion buyback program in October, adding to previous repurchase arrangements and demonstrating the company's commitment to returning shareholder capital. Despite the ongoing challenges of the pharmaceutical industry, Pfizer should continue treating its shareholders well both through generous dividends and other friendly measures.
Selena Maranjian: It's hard to think of a more shareholder-friendly company than Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B). But friendly is too mild a word for it, as the company really respects its shareholders. For starters, there are the annual letters to shareholders from Buffett. Just about every major American company issues an annual letter to shareholders, signed by the CEO. But in many cases, the CEO probably didn't write it, and in many cases, it's more interested in making the company look good than in candidly reviewing the year and company's prospects. Whereas the standard letter might take up two or three pages, Buffett's routinely surpass 20, as he admits errors and points out occasional disappointing performances.
Then there's the company's annual meeting. Whereas a typical major company's meeting might feature several hundred attendees, Berkshire Hathaway's, held in Omaha each May, features tens of thousands and has repeatedly had to find larger quarters. It's easy to dismiss it as a company-run lovefest, but it's also an example of a company welcoming its owners in a big way and showing them a good time. At the heart of it is what you'll rarely find in corporate America: a CEO and his partner (Vice Chairman Charlie Munger) answering dozens of questions from shareholders and others for some five hours. Berkshire's now-discontinued charitable donation policy also respected its shareholders: Instead of the company deciding where to donate money (that really belongs to all its owners), holders of Class A shares were allowed to designate a recipient for their share of the donation.
Finally, the company itself is set up to put shareholders first, as it aims to be around for a long time, and isn't afraid to make big investments to beef up long-term performance. Buffett's discipline, famously keeping within his "circle of competence," serves to keep the company rather focused, stable, and reliable, permitting shareholders to sleep better at night. The ultimate respect for shareholders might simply be this, though: Over the past 30 years, the stock has grown by an annual average of 18.7%!