Over the past decade or so, a noticeable shift has occurred in regard to traditional dividend investing. For years, technology was considered the province of growth-only companies, meaning the companies would plow free cash flow back into higher-return opportunities. If investors expected dividends, they got them from banks and consumer goods conglomerates.
Then in 2003, tech giant Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) signified a shift in strategy, as the company was "awash" in cash, according to The Wall Street Journal, with more than $43 billion in cash on the balance sheet then. As a reference point, the company has roughly $97 billion on its books now. Meanwhile, excessive leverage and risk-taking in the lead-up to the great recession forced most financial institutions to cut their dividend payouts, with many still paying out less on a per-share basis than before 2007.
The key, of course, for dividend-inclined investors is to find lower-risk dividend opportunities going forward. And while per-share prices will fluctuate, here are three tech companies that are capable of paying their dividends even if we're hit by another downturn.
Let's start with the biggest cash pile out there
If you're a follower of technology stocks, you're probably well aware of Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) massive war chest. As of its last earnings report, the company reported a massive $202 billion figure for cash and cash equivalents. That's important, because dividend investors should look at cash and cash equivalents as the bucket that holds future dividend payments. Those payments totaled $11.4 billion over the past four consecutive quarters, meaning Apple has the ability to pay 17 years of dividends in the hypothetical situation that the company only generated enough cash to pay for operations and equipment.
But that's simply not what's happening. Apple's free-cash flow, cash from operations minus capex, totaled nearly $70 billion last year, filling that $202 billion bucket faster than it's paying out in dividends. Of course, there are some things that should be watched, as 90% of Apple's cash is stashed overseas and the company is borrowing money quickly to pay its dividend instead of domiciling foreign cash. But overall, the company is in a strong position to pay the dividend for years to come.
As of this writing, the yield is only 1.75%, but the company has room to continue to grow its dividend and has been buying back shares at a torrid pace.
The one that started it all
Why not look at the company that started this trend? When Microsoft announced its intention to pay dividends in 2003, its first annual payout was $0.08. Now, in the recently completed 2015 fiscal year, the company paid out $1.24, good for 25% annualized dividend increases. Now there's roughly $97 billion in cash on the books, and it isn't as if the company has recklessly borrowed to enrich shareholders and keep its cash pile high. The company still enjoys a Standard & Poor's AAA rating, a designation only three companies have.
Right now, the company yields 2.65%, a figure close to the 30-year Treasury. For a strong company with the financial wherewithal and reputation to deliver its dividend, Mr. Softy is built to last.
A strong cash cow with a future focus
The last tech dividend player gets decidedly less coverage, but it may be at the forefront of the next big thing in the industry. While Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) is known for its routers and switchers, the company is trying hard to shape what it calls "The Internet of Everything." The nebulous term, which denotes bringing digital connections and data to current analog items (think thermostats, refrigerators, electrical grids, and the like), is a $19 trillion opportunity in the next decade, according to the company. That's an exciting opportunity for Cisco.
But even if Cisco's opportunity in the Internet of Things doesn't pan out quite as the company envisions, the dividend seems sound. Last quarter, the company reported cash and cash equivalents of $54 billion, with a current annual dividend run-rate of $4.4 billion. And while the company has 12 years of current dividend payments on the books, its free-cash flow is more than adequate to support the payout, so the company shouldn't have to dig into its current cash pile to pay the dividend.
So while many are still looking to Wall Street's big banks for income-equity investments, more dividend investors are looking west for smart dividend plays. With strong balance sheets, popular products, and high-margin business models, tech brings many low(er)-risk dividend stocks to consider.
Jamal Carnette owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Cisco Systems. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and 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.