What Is The Dividend Payout Ratio?

Nathan Slaughter's picture

Friday, July 19, 2019 - 2:30pm

by Nathan Slaughter

I love hearing from my High-Yield Investing subscribers. Any time I get an email from a reader, whether it's in the form of a question, some constructive feedback, or simply a success story -- it reminds me that we've garnered quite the loyal following over the years.

One of the most common questions I get has to do with payout ratios.

The question usually goes something like this...

What is a dividend payout ratio? 

or...

Why do the dividend payout ratios listed in High-Yield Investing sometimes differ from the payout ratios I've found on various financial web sites?

These may sound like simple questions, but it's worth addressing for a wider audience. 

Dividend Payout Ratio, Explained
The dividend payout ratio measures a stock's annual dividend payment as a fraction of its earnings. It tells you what portion of its earnings a company is paying out to shareholders. A company that earned $1 per share in profits over the past year and is now paying out 60 cents a share in annual dividends has a payout ratio of 60%.

Payout ratios may vary on different financial web sites. One of the reasons for the discrepancy is that the dividend payout can be calculated as a percentage of cash flow instead of reported earnings. The payout ratios of securities such as real estate investment trusts, limited partnerships, Canadian income trusts, and telecom firms can seem deceptively high if they are based on earnings instead of available cash flow. That's because these companies typically have very high non-cash depreciation expenses, which reduce earnings but don't affect the cash flow available to shareholders.

Understanding Differences 
When writing my High-Yield Investing newsletter, I take great care to list the most appropriate payout ratio for each particular security we mention. In many cases, we'll list payout ratios as a percentage of available cash flow instead of earnings. We calculate this data by reviewing each firm's latest annual financial statements. 

Again, because earnings include a number of non-cash changes, including depreciation, the use of cash flow figures usually provides a more accurate indication of each firm's ability to continue to meet its dividend requirements. However, since we often use cash flow data instead of earnings, the payout ratios we reference in High-Yield Investing may differ from what you'll find on other financial web sites.

No matter how you calculate payout ratios, the general rule here is that the lower a stock's payout ratio, the better. The reason for this is simple -- firms with low payout ratios generally have more room to raise their dividend payments in the future. Low payout ratios also provide an extra level of security because even if the company's earnings were to decelerate, the dividend would remain safe for a period of time.

The Takeaway
Bottom line, it's important to understand payout ratios: what they are, how they're calculated, and what's considered a high or low payout ratio. Not only does it explain some of the discrepancies you'll find from different information sources, but it can also make a huge difference in determining whether an investment is right for you when the time comes to decide whether to buy or sell. 

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Nathan Slaughter does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.
StreetAuthority LLC does not hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.