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Are Dividend Investors Making A Mistake With Contact Energy Limited (NZSE:CEN)?

Simply Wall St

Today we'll take a closer look at Contact Energy Limited (NZSE:CEN) from a dividend investor's perspective. Owning a strong business and reinvesting the dividends is widely seen as an attractive way of growing your wealth. Yet sometimes, investors buy a popular dividend stock because of its yield, and then lose money if the company's dividend doesn't live up to expectations.

With Contact Energy yielding 5.3% and having paid a dividend for over 10 years, many investors likely find the company quite interesting. It would not be a surprise to discover that many investors buy it for the dividends. Some simple analysis can reduce the risk of holding Contact Energy for its dividend, and we'll focus on the most important aspects below.

Explore this interactive chart for our latest analysis on Contact Energy!

NZSE:CEN Historical Dividend Yield, November 1st 2019

Payout ratios

Companies (usually) pay dividends out of their earnings. If a company is paying more than it earns, the dividend might have to be cut. 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. Looking at the data, we can see that 164% of Contact Energy's profits were paid out as dividends in the last 12 months. A payout ratio above 100% is definitely an item of concern, unless there are some other circumstances that would justify it.

In addition to comparing dividends against profits, we should inspect whether the company generated enough cash to pay its dividend. Contact Energy paid out 62% of its cash flow as dividends last year, which is within a reasonable range for the average corporation. It's good to see that while Contact Energy's dividends were not covered by profits, at least they are affordable from a cash perspective. Still, if the company repeatedly paid a dividend greater than its profits, we'd be concerned. Extraordinarily few companies are capable of persistently paying a dividend that is greater than their profits.

Is Contact Energy's Balance Sheet Risky?

As Contact Energy's dividend was not well covered by earnings, we need to check its balance sheet for signs of financial distress. A rough way to check this is with these two simple ratios: a) net debt divided by EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation), and b) 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). Contact Energy has net debt of 2.14 times its EBITDA. Using debt can accelerate business growth, but also increases the risks.

We calculated its interest cover by measuring its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT), and dividing this by the company's net interest expense. With EBIT of 4.29 times its interest expense, Contact Energy's interest cover is starting to look a bit thin.

Consider getting our latest analysis on Contact Energy's financial position here.

Dividend Volatility

From the perspective of an income investor who wants to earn dividends for many years, there is not much point buying a stock if its dividend is regularly cut or is not reliable. For the purpose of this article, we only scrutinise the last decade of Contact Energy's dividend payments. The dividend has been cut by more than 20% on at least one occasion historically. During the past ten-year period, the first annual payment was NZ$0.28 in 2009, compared to NZ$0.39 last year. Dividends per share have grown at approximately 3.4% per year over this time. Contact Energy's dividend payments have fluctuated, so it hasn't grown 3.4% every year, but the CAGR is a useful rule of thumb for approximating the historical growth.

We're glad to see the dividend has risen, but with a limited rate of growth and fluctuations in the payments, we don't think this is an attractive combination.

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? In the last five years, Contact Energy's earnings per share have shrunk at approximately 5.8% per annum. A modest decline in earnings per share is not great to see, but it doesn't automatically make a dividend unsustainable. Still, we'd vastly prefer to see EPS growth when researching dividend stocks.

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. We're a bit uncomfortable with its high payout ratio, although at least the dividend was covered by free cash flow. Second, earnings per share have been in decline, and its dividend has been cut at least once in the past. In this analysis, Contact Energy doesn't shape up too well as a dividend stock. We'd find it hard to look past the flaws, and would not be inclined to think of it as a reliable dividend-payer.

Given that earnings are not growing, the dividend does not look nearly so attractive. Very few businesses see earnings consistently shrink year after year in perpetuity though, and so it might be worth seeing what the 7 analysts we track are forecasting for the future.

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

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.

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. Thank you for reading.