Which stocks could dramatically increase their dividends this year? Some companies simply have so much cash in the bank, or are making so much more than they currently pay out, that a dividend doubling is well within the realm of possibility.
Here are three companies our analysts think have a real chance to double their dividends (or more) in 2015.
Every investor likes bigger checks from the stocks they hold, and Apple Inc (NASDAQ:AAPL) looks like it could double its payout this year. The company just reported a blowout fourth quarter, posting net income of $18 billion, up 37% over the year-ago quarter and reportedly more than any company has ever posted in a quarter. Its average iPhone selling price hit a record $687, and it sold a jaw-dropping 74.5 million of the devices.
But back to the company's dividend, which recently yielded 1.6%. Apple pays $0.47 per quarter, or $1.88 per year -- a far smaller sum than its last quarter's earnings per share of $3.06. That alone suggests plenty of room for growth, but consider this, too: The company's cash coffers now stand at $178 billion! Given that, it doesn't seem much of a stretch that the company could double its dividend payments, which currently amount to about $11 billion annually.
Still, many investors reasonably want more than just dividend potential, and Apple has a lot to offer. Its huge cash pile and its prodigious free cash flow (nearly $60 billion over the past year) give it plenty of flexibility to take advantage of opportunities. Its gift for innovating and introducing successful new products is well known, and it can also buy useful technologies. As Vala Afshar pointed out on Twitter recently, Apple could use its cash to buy Uber, Airbnb, Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), Snapchat, Dropbox, and SpaceX -- and still have more than $20 billion left over. It’s true that as with many big multinational companies, much of Apple’s cash -- about $158 billion -- is held overseas and thus has limited utility. But several plans are making the rounds to get that money taxed and repatriated. President Obama has a new plan that could cost Apple as much as $22 billion in taxes, but then its cash would be available domestically.
One stock that could easily double its dividend and then some in 2015 is Citigroup (NYSE:C). It's not that Citigroup is a great dividend stock or even a safe investment. Since the financial crisis and the ensuing bailouts, banks must submit a capital plan and obtain government approval before raising their dividends or share buyback programs. And Citigroup is one of the last major U.S. banks to still have a $0.01 quarterly dividend left over from the financial crisis, so I feel that an increase is overdue.
The main primary factor in whether or not a dividend increase is approved is how the bank fares in the "stress tests," which are meant to determine a bank's ability to absorb another economic downturn. When the newest stress test results are released in March, the continued improvement in Citigroup's asset quality and capital levels might be enough to finally persuade regulators to allow the bank to start returning meaningful amounts of money to shareholders.
As of the company's year-end earnings report, Citigroup's Basel III Tier 1 capital level (the main measure of a bank's financial strength from a regulator's point of view) is at 11.4%, up from 10.7% at the end of 2013, and its Basel III supplementary leverage ratio (used to quantify risk in a bank's balance sheet) improved from 5.4% to 6%. And the company's Citi Holdings "legacy" division continues to shed its assets, which currently stand at $98 billion. This represents a 16% year-over-year decline and is down sharply from $290 billion in 2011, which means Citigroup has fewer "risky" assets to cause problems during tough times.
Many industry experts expected Citigroup to get the green light for a dividend increase last year, and with this further improvement, there's no reason not to expect it to finally happen this year.
One stock that seems like a stretch for a dividend double is automaker General Motors (NYSE:GM). The car company sports a 3.7% dividend yield, and with an earnings payout ratio of more than 75%, few investors would have expected that General Motors would be likely to raise its payout by anything more than a token amount, let alone a full 100%.
Yet that's exactly what hedge fund manager Kyle Bass argued last month, saying that General Motors has too much capital on its balance sheet and that it should look at ways of returning that capital to shareholders. Specifically, Bass said that between GM's $27 billion of available cash, $15 billion in operating earnings, and $5 billion to $6 billion in free cash flow, the company could double its dividend without running into trouble from a liquidity standpoint. Although General Motors does have some challenges to overcome, including potential fines related to its recall liability and the need to renegotiate its union contracts with its auto-worker employees, Bass still thinks the automaker has ample cash and borrowing power on hand to reward shareholders with a huge dividend boost.
At this point, few people expect GM to follow Bass' advice. But GM's decision in early February to give investors a 20% dividend hike reflects the pressure that the automaker felt from the hedge fund manager, and the company even said it could follow up with larger returns of shareholder capital later in the year once some legal disputes get resolved.