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Is Oil Search Limited (ASX:OSH) A Smart Pick For Income Investors?

Simply Wall St

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Could Oil Search Limited (ASX:OSH) 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. If you are hoping to live on your dividends, it's important to be more stringent with your investments than the average punter. Regular readers know we like to apply the same approach to each dividend stock, and we hope you'll find our analysis useful.

A 2.1% yield is nothing to get excited about, but investors probably think the long payment history suggests Oil Search has some staying power. Some simple analysis can reduce the risk of holding Oil Search for its dividend, and we'll focus on the most important aspects below.

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ASX:OSH Historical Dividend Yield, July 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. So we need to form a view on if a company's dividend is sustainable, relative to its net profit after tax. Oil Search paid out 47% of its profit as dividends, over the trailing twelve month period. This is a middling range that strikes a nice balance between paying dividends to shareholders, and retaining enough earnings to invest in future growth. One of the risks is that management reinvests the retained capital poorly instead of paying a higher dividend.

We also measure dividends paid against a company's levered free cash flow, to see if enough cash was generated to cover the dividend. Oil Search paid out 249% of its free cash flow last year, which we think is concerning if cash flows do not improve. Paying out such a high percentage of cash flow suggests that the dividend was funded from either cash at bank or by borrowing, neither of which is desirable over the long term. While Oil Search's dividends were covered by the company's reported profits, free cash flow is somewhat more important, so it's not great to see that the company didn't generate enough cash to pay its dividend. Cash is king, as they say, and were Oil Search to repeatedly pay dividends that aren't well covered by cashflow, we would consider this a warning sign.

Is Oil Search's Balance Sheet Risky?

As Oil Search has a meaningful amount of debt, we need to check its balance sheet to see if the company might have debt risks. 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). With net debt of 2.66 times its EBITDA, Oil Search has a noticeable amount of debt, although if business stays steady, this may not be overly concerning.

Net interest cover can be calculated by dividing earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) by the company's net interest expense. Interest cover of 3.71 times its interest expense is starting to become a concern for Oil Search, and be aware that lenders may place additional restrictions on the company as well.

Consider getting our latest analysis on Oil Search's financial position here.

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. For the purpose of this article, we only scrutinise the last decade of Oil Search's dividend payments. This dividend has been unstable, which we define as having fallen by at least 20% one or more times over this time. During the past ten-year period, the first annual payment was US$0.08 in 2009, compared to US$0.10 last year. This works out to be a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 2.8% a year over that time. Oil Search's dividend payments have fluctuated, so it hasn't grown 2.8% every year, but the CAGR is a useful rule of thumb for approximating the historical growth.

It's good to see some dividend growth, but the dividend has been cut at least once, and the size of the cut would eliminate most of the growth, anyway. We're not that enthused by this.

Dividend Growth Potential

With a relatively unstable dividend, it's even more important to evaluate if earnings per share (EPS) are growing - it's not worth taking the risk on a dividend getting cut, unless you might be rewarded with larger dividends in future. Earnings have grown at around 7.8% a year for the past five years, which is better than seeing them shrink! It's good to see decent earnings growth and a low payout ratio. Companies with these characteristics often display the fastest dividend growth over the long term - assuming earnings can be maintained, of course.

Conclusion

To summarise, shareholders should always check that Oil Search's dividends are affordable, that its dividend payments are relatively stable, and that it has decent prospects for growing its earnings and dividend. Firstly, the company has a conservative payout ratio, although we'd note that its cashflow in the past year was substantially lower than its reported profit. Unfortunately, earnings growth has also been mediocre, and the company has cut its dividend at least once in the past. In sum, we find it hard to get excited about Oil Search from a dividend perspective. It's not that we think it's a bad business; just that there are other companies that perform better on these criteria.

Earnings growth generally bodes well for the future value of company dividend payments. See if the 14 Oil Search analysts we track are forecasting continued growth with our free report on analyst estimates for the company.

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.