AT&T (NYSE:T) faces an increasingly difficult business environment going forward that could, but probably won't, get the company to revise its long-standing dividend policy.
In the wireless business -- where it leads the way along with Verizon (NYSE:VZ) -- the company must deal with increased competition from T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) and, to a lesser extent, Sprint (NYSE:S). Both of these carriers offer lower prices, and the long-held network advantage AT&T and Verizon once held over them has largely evaporated.
Things don't get any easier for AT&T in pay television, where it faces the ultimate low-cost competitor: cord-cutting. Though people dropping cable in favor of much cheaper streaming services has not happened in big numbers, it has been happening slowly and steadily. It's also forcing pay television companies to get more creative in offering cheaper bundles, which could drive margins down.
Even AT&T's broadband business, which should benefit from cord-cutters who still need to keep Internet service, faces increased pressure in the new year. All the players in the space are amping up their networks, making it necessary to invest heavily in order to remain competitive.
It's a very challenging landscape looking ahead for AT&T, but history suggests the company will raise its dividend.
What does history say?
Since the third quarter of 2003, when AT&T paid $0.10 per share as a dividend, the company has raised rates steadily. In the fourth quarter of 2003, the number climbed to $0.28 before jumping to $0.31 for each of the four quarters in 2004. After that, the company has steadily moved its dividend higher while paying the same amount each quarter.
|Year||Dividend / Quarter|
Since 2004, no matter how its business has been operating, AT&T has consistently inched its dividend forward. The company would actually argue that it has raised the dividend for 32 straight years, but the numbers are muddled thanks to some stock splits throughout its history.
What's very clear, as you can see above, is that the company has raised its dividend by one penny each year since 2008. Given that AT&T has already paid its first 2016 dividend -- and not surprisingly, it's one cent higher than last year's -- there is every reason to be believe the company will stick to that going forward.
Is this set in stone?
There is nothing to stop AT&T from cutting its dividend or raising it even higher. Both seem unlikely, though, since the company has been so consistent in its approach. And, AT&T has even announced its increase using annual numbers, not quarterly ones, calling it an increase from $1.88 to $1.92 per share, in a press release.
"Our continued financial strength and outlook for strong cash flows give us the confidence to increase our dividend for the 32nd consecutive year," said Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T.
Should something bad or unexpected happen the company could reverse course later in the year, but history shows that to be very unlikely. AT&T will be paying a higher dividend this year, and it's safe to say next year or even beyond as well.