I have a prediction for you. Well, actually it's not much of a prediction as much of a forecast. You see, rather than go out on a limb and make a bold statement like some market pundits seem to enjoy so much, I actually have the fact to back up my predictions.
The prediction? Get ready for a rising tide of dividend increases. It's inevitable. According to a recent estimate by Moody's, corporations hold an estimated $1.24 trillion in cash reserves.
Talk about keeping the powder dry.
Sooner or later, corporate America will have to do something with all that scratch. But rather than use it toward new product development or acquisitions in this uncertain climate, many companies are likely to announce share buybacks and dividend hikes. After all, that's better than just letting it sit there, earning next to nothing in interest.
You can run the numbers with a range of companies to see what kind of dividend hikes they could sport. I've done the math and have found no less than three examples of companies that may soon be on the cusp of a big dividend hike -- setting them on the course to possibly doubling their payouts down the line. That's not a reason alone to buy these stocks, but after further research, it could make the case for buying all the more compelling.
This stock was also once an income-seeker's dream. The annual payout, which stood at 20 cents a share in 2003, rose by a similar amount every year until it hit $1.29 a share in 2008. Since then, management has grown much more cautious, trimming the dividend back to 40 cents a share in 2009 and 2010.
Nowadays, the iconic motorcycle manufacturer is back on the dividend-growth track, with the payout rising to 48 cents a share in 2011 and up to 62 cents a share this year. Look for that trend to continue.
Let's do the math: Harley-Davidson earned $599 million in 2011 and paid out $111 million in dividends. In more confident times, management appears quite comfortable parting with more of that income and giving it to shareholders. For example, in 2008, the company had $654 million in net income and paid out $302 million in dividends (equating to a payout ratio of 46%).
Well, analysts see the company building a rising stream of profits, culminating in earnings of about $3.43 per share in 2013. That works out to be $800 million in net income. If you assume that management grows comfortable with a 35% payout ratio, then you're talking about $280 million in dividends (or $1.19 a share). That means Harley-Davidson may have a dividend yield approaching 3% next year, roughly double the current payout.
2. Ford Motor (NYSE: F)
Current dividend yield: 2.1%
Shares of this automaker have lost half of their value since the start of 2011, giving the impression that Ford is returning to the bad old days of 2008 and 2009. Sure, there are troubles in its European operations, but Ford is still quite profitable these days, taking home more than $7 billion in operating income in 2010 and 2011. (As a point of reference, in the boom years of the past decade, Ford had only one very profitable year -- 2004, when it had $4 billion in operating income). In other words, Ford is generating record profits now -- in a still-tough economy and is poised to perhaps exceed $10 billion in operating income when Europe stops being a drag.
To send a clear message about its fiscal health, Ford instituted a 5-cents-a-share quarterly dividend in the fourth quarter of 2011, equating to a 20 cents annual payout and a 2% yield. But Ford can do much better.
Note that after several productive years, Ford now has more cash then debt, and as it doesn't need to keep building its cash higher, the company may soon choose to part with one-third of its operating income in the form of a dividend. Well, one-third of the $7 billion in operating income equates to a $2.33 billion sum. That works out to be an annual payout of 62 cents per share -- three times the current payout, and equating to a 6.2% yield. In fact, Ford's profits are likely to be considerably higher as the global economy mends, so we may be looking at a $1 a share dividend by mid-decade. It's not bad for a $9.50 stock.
3. Worthington Industries (NYSE: WOR)
Current dividend yield: 2.5%
Another way to spot looming dividend hikes is to focus on free cash flow compared to the current payout. Many companies tend to limit their dividend payments until the balance sheet is in order. Once they have enough cash on hand, they are less inclined to retain future earnings.
Case in point: Worthington Industries, which processes steel into various end products such as tanks, tubes and other equipment used in industrial settings.
Worthington pays out an annual dividend of 52 cents a share, good for a 2.5% yield. Yet Goldman Sachs predicts that free cash flow per share, which hit $2 in fiscal (May) 2012, will exceed $2.75 by fiscal 2014. Simply boosting the payout ratio to 50%, which is what mature, steady industrial firms do, would push the dividend up to about $1.35. And that works out to be a juicy 6.4% yield.
Risks to Consider: Companies have been quick to reduce their dividends when the economy slips into recession, so further dividend hikes should only be assumed in the context of a firming economy.
Action to Take --> Many companies are flush with cash these days and have just begun to move dividend payouts back to levels seen five years ago. This trend should continue, and you can use the payout ratio to gauge how much more dividend growth these firms may have. As I said earlier, a dividend that could double -- or even triple -- is not a reason alone to buy these stocks, but it could make it that much more profitable.