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Should You Buy AusNet Services Ltd (ASX:AST) For Its Dividend?

Simply Wall St

Could AusNet Services Ltd (ASX:AST) be an attractive dividend share to own for the long haul? Investors are often drawn to strong companies with the idea of reinvesting the dividends. Unfortunately, it's common for investors to be enticed in by the seemingly attractive yield, and lose money when the company has to cut its dividend payments.

A high yield and a long history of paying dividends is an appealing combination for AusNet Services. We'd guess that plenty of investors have purchased it for the income. Before you buy any stock for its dividend however, you should always remember Warren Buffett's two rules: 1) Don't lose money, and 2) Remember rule #1. We'll run through some checks below to help with this.

Explore this interactive chart for our latest analysis on AusNet Services!

ASX:AST Historical Dividend Yield April 28th 2020

Payout ratios

Dividends are typically paid from company earnings. If a company pays more in dividends than it earned, then the dividend might become unsustainable - hardly an ideal situation. As a result, we should always investigate whether a company can afford its dividend, measured as a percentage of a company's net income after tax. AusNet Services paid out 149% of its profit as dividends, over the trailing twelve month period. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, from the perspective of an investor who hopes to own the company for many years, a payout ratio of above 100% is definitely a concern.

In addition to comparing dividends against profits, we should inspect whether the company generated enough cash to pay its dividend. Unfortunately, while AusNet Services pays a dividend, it also reported negative free cash flow last year. While there may be a good reason for this, it's not ideal from a dividend perspective.

Is AusNet Services's Balance Sheet Risky?

As AusNet Services's dividend was not well covered by earnings, we need to check its balance sheet for signs of financial distress. A quick check of its financial situation can be done with two ratios: net debt divided by EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation), and net interest cover. Net debt to EBITDA measures total debt load relative to company earnings (lower = less debt), while net interest cover measures the ability to pay interest on the debt (higher = greater ability to pay interest costs). AusNet Services has net debt of 7.95 times its EBITDA, which implies meaningful risk if interest rates rise of earnings decline.

We calculated its interest cover by measuring its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT), and dividing this by the company's net interest expense. Interest cover of 2.51 times its interest expense is starting to become a concern for AusNet Services, and be aware that lenders may place additional restrictions on the company as well. High debt and weak interest cover are not a great combo, and we would be cautious of relying on this company's dividend while these metrics persist.

Remember, you can always get a snapshot of AusNet Services's latest financial position, by checking our visualisation of its financial health.

Dividend Volatility

One of the major risks of relying on dividend income, is the potential for a company to struggle financially and cut its dividend. Not only is your income cut, but the value of your investment declines as well - nasty. AusNet Services has been paying dividends for a long time, but for the purpose of this analysis, we only examine the past 10 years of payments. This dividend has been unstable, which we define as having been cut one or more times over this time. During the past ten-year period, the first annual payment was AU$0.12 in 2010, compared to AU$0.10 last year. This works out to be a decline of approximately 1.5% per year over that time. AusNet Services's dividend has been cut sharply at least once, so it hasn't fallen by 1.5% every year, but this is a decent approximation of the long term change.

When a company's per-share dividend falls we question if this reflects poorly on either external business conditions, or the company's capital allocation decisions. Either way, we find it hard to get excited about a company with a declining dividend.

Dividend Growth Potential

With a relatively unstable dividend, it's even more important to see if earnings per share (EPS) are growing. Why take the risk of a dividend getting cut, unless there's a good chance of bigger dividends in future? AusNet Services has grown its earnings per share at 4.9% per annum over the past five years. This level of earnings growth is low, and the company is paying out 149% of its profit. As they say in finance, 'past performance is not indicative of future performance', but we are not confident a company with limited earnings growth and a high payout ratio will be a star dividend-payer over the next decade.

Conclusion

Dividend investors should always want to know if a) a company's dividends are affordable, b) if there is a track record of consistent payments, and c) if the dividend is capable of growing. AusNet Services paid out almost all of its cash flow and profit as dividends, leaving little to reinvest in the business. Second, earnings growth has been ordinary, and its history of dividend payments is chequered - having cut its dividend at least once in the past. Using these criteria, AusNet Services looks quite suboptimal from a dividend investment perspective.

Investors generally tend to favour companies with a consistent, stable dividend policy as opposed to those operating an irregular one. Still, investors need to consider a host of other factors, apart from dividend payments, when analysing a company. Taking the debate a bit further, we've identified 2 warning signs for AusNet Services that investors need to be conscious of moving forward.

If you are a dividend investor, you might also want to look at our curated list of dividend stocks yielding above 3%.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Thank you for reading.