Barring a stock market panic in 2016, it's almost guaranteed that BlackRock (NYSE:BLK) will raise its dividend.
My belief rests in its history. Since 2003, when it declared its first dividend to shareholders, BlackRock has increased its dividend every year, with the exception of 2009, when it held dividends flat with its 2008 payouts.
This year should bring another dividend increase, which will probably be announced when the company reports its fourth-quarter 2015 earnings on Jan. 15.
A low payout ratio
BlackRock's core business as an asset manager requires the company to retain very little earnings to fund growth. Historically, the company has paid out about 35% to 53% of its earnings as a dividend, topped off with routine share repurchases.
In every quarter in 2015, BlackRock supplemented its dividend with $275 million of share repurchases and guided for a similar level of repurchases in the fourth quarter of 2015. This represents about $1.1 billion of cash that could be redirected toward larger dividends if BlackRock desired to do so.
BlackRock can afford to pay out a high percentage of its net income as a dividend because of its earnings quality. Asset managers are said to be "asset-light" businesses, meaning they do not require continuous large reinvestments to grow their revenue and earnings.
This shows up in a comparison of BlackRock's net income to its free cash flow. From 2005 through the first nine months of 2015, BlackRock generated $18.8 billion in net income versus $19.8 billion in free cash flow. Ultimately, cash flow is king -- and BlackRock has plenty of it.
Further cementing my belief that BlackRock will increase its dividend is the fact that a consistently rising dividend is a hallmark of the asset management industry. T. Rowe Price has a dividend record worthy of envy, having increased its dividends for more than 25 years, putting it in a select list of so-called "dividend aristocrats."
Charts like the one above, which shows BlackRock's steadily increasing dividend over time, don't happen by accident. BlackRock has trained its shareholders to expect a dividend increase in the first quarter of a new year, and I expect that's exactly what shareholders will get in 2016.