Like fellow tech megacap Apple in 2012, Google's enviable economic engine has created another supposed "problem" for it. Simply stated, the search maestro mints money faster than it can spend it, a paradoxical problem that has recently rekindled the debate about whether Google should pony up and begin paying a dividend.
The case for a Google dividend
By nearly every conceivable measure, Google can easily afford to fund a dividend. For starters, Google is astoundingly profitable. Free cash flow exceeded $10 billion in all three of its most recent fiscal years. And in no small part because of its extraordinary economics, Google employs relatively minimal leverage throughout its capital structure. In its most recent quarterly report, Google only carried roughly $25 billion in total liabilities on its balance sheet, versus cash and marketable securities alone worth more than $65 billion.
Google could also opt to return capital by some means other than a dividend. Depending on a stock's valuation, buying back stock can be a more tax-efficient means of increasing total returns for shareholders, so dividends certainly aren't the only kind of capital return to deserve consideration here.
Either way, ample evidence exists to support this general point; Google throws off plenty of excess cash to fund its operations and then some. So, why wouldn't it pay a dividend?
The case against a Google dividend
Although a number of possible scenarios could prevent Google from initiating a dividend, for the purposes of this discussion, I'll limit my focus to two of the most pervasive lines of reasoning. First, companies will at times stockpile cash in order to fund future acquisitions, and maintaining the optionality to buy its way into effectively any industry or market certainly could loom large in Google's miserly cash management practices.
As a company investing in disparate spaces from Internet-streaming balloons to self-driving cars to artificial intelligence and beyond, Google clearly understands that tomorrow's technological landscape will likely dramatically differ from what many imagine. As such, maintaining enough financial "dry powder" to buy its way back into relevancy should it find itself on the wrong end of the next great growth market makes sense.
However, given its minimally leveraged balance sheet, its consistent cash generation, and the sheer enormity of its current cash balance, Google could likely still swallow all but the biggest companies even if it were paying a dividend.
Second, for better or worse, technology companies are in many ways defined by their growth. High growth companies are often better equipped to compete in the cutthroat market for talent; this holds especially true insofar as most top tech workers receive stock option awards.
As such, some argue that tech companies that begin to pay dividends signal their days as market disruptors have long passed. But this is a largely anecdotal argument and one that wouldn't likely apply to a company as fixated on continued growth as Google.
Especially among the elite tech talent that Google must continue to attract in order to remain relevant, Google's undeniable cool factor has proven a hugely effective recruiting tool over the years. And if paying a dividend could unintentionally dampen its status as an "it" place to work, then a Google dividend might prove more trouble than it's worth. Again, this isn't my personal belief, but it's a perspective that certainly bears consideration as part of the broader Google dividend debate.
Sooner or later
According to a recent article from Bloomberg, with roughly half its total assets in cash or other liquid investments, Google has a greater percentage of its assets in cash or cash equivalents than any other large cap company. Other familiar tech powers including Amazon.com, Facebook, and Priceline also make the list. However, no other large tech company listed had cash and equivalents in excess of 30% of total assets, making Google by far the most liquid among its Nasdaq brethren.
Both the pro and con views of Google's current dividend policy have their merit. However, with the outlook for Google's core businesses largely unchanged and the sheer extent of its current cash buffer, the discussion of a Google dividend should be framed in "whens," rather than "ifs." So, regardless of your perspective, take it to the bank: Google will begin paying a dividend within the next few years. It's only a matter of time.