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Is Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) A Smart Choice For Dividend Investors?

Simply Wall St

Is Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) a good dividend stock? How can we tell? Dividend paying companies with growing earnings can be highly rewarding in the long term. 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.

While Southwest Airlines's 1.2% dividend yield is not the highest, we think its lengthy payment history is quite interesting. The company also bought back stock equivalent to around 6.3% of market capitalisation this year. 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 Southwest Airlines!

NYSE:LUV Historical Dividend Yield, November 18th 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. Comparing dividend payments to a company's net profit after tax is a simple way of reality-checking whether a dividend is sustainable. Southwest Airlines paid out 15% of its profit as dividends, over the trailing twelve month period. We'd say its dividends are thoroughly covered by earnings.

We also measure dividends paid against a company's levered free cash flow, to see if enough cash was generated to cover the dividend. Southwest Airlines's cash payout ratio last year was 13%. Cash flows are typically lumpy, but this looks like an appropriately conservative payout. It's encouraging to see that the dividend is covered by both profit and cash flow. This generally suggests the dividend is sustainable, as long as earnings don't drop precipitously.

While the above analysis focuses on dividends relative to a company's earnings, we do note Southwest Airlines's strong net cash position, which will let it pay larger dividends for a time, should it choose.

We update our data on Southwest Airlines every 24 hours, so you can always get our latest analysis of its financial health, 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. Southwest Airlines has been paying dividends for a long time, but for the purpose of this analysis, we only examine the past 10 years of payments. During this period the dividend has been stable, which could imply the business could have relatively consistent earnings power. During the past ten-year period, the first annual payment was US$0.018 in 2009, compared to US$0.72 last year. Dividends per share have grown at approximately 45% per year over this time.

Dividends have been growing pretty quickly, and even more impressively, they haven't experienced any notable falls during this period.

Dividend Growth Potential

While dividend payments have been relatively reliable, it would also be nice if earnings per share (EPS) were growing, as this is essential to maintaining the dividend's purchasing power over the long term. It's good to see Southwest Airlines has been growing its earnings per share at 33% a year over the past five years. Earnings per share have grown rapidly, and the company is retaining a majority of its earnings. We think this is ideal from an investment perspective, if the company is able to reinvest these earnings effectively.

Conclusion

To summarise, shareholders should always check that Southwest Airlines's dividends are affordable, that its dividend payments are relatively stable, and that it has decent prospects for growing its earnings and dividend. It's great to see that Southwest Airlines is paying out a low percentage of its earnings and cash flow. We like that it has been delivering solid improvement in its earnings per share, and relatively consistent dividend payments. Southwest Airlines has met all of our criteria, including having strong cash flow that covers the dividend. We definitely think it would be worthwhile looking closer.

Companies that are growing earnings tend to be the best dividend stocks over the long term. See what the 18 analysts we track are forecasting for Southwest Airlines for free with public analyst estimates for the company.

We have also put together a list of global stocks with a market capitalisation above $1bn and yielding more 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.