Is the colder weather beginning to freeze out dividend raises? In early and mid-November, they seemed to come every day, but lately that pace has slowed.
Nonetheless, several companies have recently bestowed early holiday presents on their shareholders. Here are the details of three of those dividend hikes.
This sturdy producer of spices and condiments is a dividend aristocrat -- one of the rare companies that have raised their payouts at least once per year for a minimum of 25 years in a row. McCormick will maintain that title by raising its quarterly disbursement by 8% to $0.43 per share, marking its 30th consecutive increase.
Stability and consistency are the pillars of the company's operations. It has a tight focus on its core business and has never strayed far from it. This makes it a mainstay in American spice racks and keeps it in the black financially, although it isn't exactly a model of explosive growth.
Yet McCormick is steadily growing its top line, at least. On a constant-currency basis, sales rose 7% in Q3 to just over $1 billion. Net income was down by 20%, but the company was still well in the black at nearly $98 million in profit. Recent and complementary acquisitions should help improve results.
Meanwhile, McCormick's consistent profitability is good for its free cash flow, which has been robust over the years. On an annual basis, cash flow is roughly double what the company pays out in total dividends, so I expect this company to stay aristocratic and keep raising its payout well into the future.
McCormick's upcoming dividend will be paid on Jan. 15 to shareholders of record as of Dec. 31.
Hormel Foods (NYSE:HRL)
Like McCormick, this food product maker is a dividend aristocrat, with a streak of dividend raises that just hit the half-century mark. Hormel Foods' 50th increase in a row is a meaty 16% bump to $0.29 per share for its quarterly dividend.
There was plenty of nutrition in the company's most recent set of results. Although fiscal 2015 sales were flat on a year-over-year basis, adjusted net profit rose by 19% to $714 million, Hormel's all-time annual record. Key segments recorded big jumps in operating profit, including refrigerated foods (by 27%), and grocery products (57%).
While we're on the subject of records, earlier this year the company inked the largest takeover deal in its history, buying organic-meats purveyor Applegate Farms for $775 million. That was a smart move into the increasingly popular natural-products segment, and it has already helped improve the company's results.
A larger roster of assets and higher profitability has swelled Hormel's annual free cash flow figure, which has more than doubled (to $866 million) since fiscal 2011. That amount was over three times what the company dispensed in dividends. So in my opinion, no investor needs to worry about the viability of this new payout.
Hormel's raised dividend is to be distributed on Feb. 16 to stockholders of record as of Jan. 19. Note: The company plans to split its stock 2-for-1, effective around Feb. 9; that $0.29 per-share payout is the pre-split amount.
My third pick isn't an aristocrat, but pharmaceutical giant Merck does have a long and distinguished record of paying regular quarterly dividends and lifting them often. The most recent increase is a 2% bump to $0.46 per share.
That raise is cautious, which is fitting because these are cautious times for the company. Merck faces that classic big pharma problem of patent expiration, with several of its blockbuster drugs losing their patents in recent years.
Merck is weathering this storm, not least because it has enacted some ambitious rationalization measures, including layoffs and cost-cutting initiatives. This, along with the success of several drugs still under patent (like cancer immunotherapy treatment Keytruda), has buoyed results of late. Q3 sales were down but not alarmingly so, sliding 5% from the Q3 2014 figure to land at just over $10 billion. Adjusted net actually saw a rise, advancing by 4% to $2.7 billion.
Although those developments are encouraging, investors should be aware that free cash flow has declined notably in both the most recent fiscal year and the latest reported quarter. FCF in fiscal 2014 came to $6.5 billion, the lowest level across the past five years.
2014 dividend payments totaled nearly $5.2 billion, so the company can certainly afford the current modest raise. But if I were an income investor, I'd keep my eye on how those cash flow numbers develop going forward and consider bailing on the stock if they keep diving.
Merck's new dividend will be handed out on Jan. 8 to shareholders of record as of Dec. 15.