With interest rates still sitting near record lows, investors looking for current income have been forced to move from fixed-income positions and into stocks to find yield. To help offset those risks, one of the first things dividend investors do is look for companies operating in stable, growing industries like Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK). But before doing the foolish thing and taking this dividend for granted, let’s take a closer look at whether it’s truly worthy of a spot in your portfolio.
Health is priceless; health care isn’t.
As a pharmaceutical company, Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK) benefits from many of the unique elements of the industry that make it attractive for dividend investors. We all know it’s impossible to put a price on one’s health and well-being. Because of that, and due to the unbearable cost of emergency health problems, insurance companies and government entitlement programs have taken over as the gatekeepers of health care spending around the world.
But the industry’s high costs didn’t just appear out of thin air. Partly to blame is the fact that our insurance systems have effectively masked the direct costs of health care by turning the system into a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet, removing most of the consumer-driven pricing mechanisms that exist in practically every other industry. This dynamic, along with the aging and increasingly unhealthy society that we’re all well aware of, is a key reason health care spending will continue to grow.
But while these big picture trends might be driving the overall industry, investors looking at specific health care dividend stocks need to dig a layer deeper to understand the company-specific issues at work. After all, dividends aren’t a guarantee, and if the going gets tough enough, even a “stable” health care stock could cut — or eliminate — its dividend. With that being said, let’s check on where Merck’s dividend has been, and try to determine where it’s going.
A quick-and-dirty technique for checking a dividend’s sustainability is taking a look at something called the payout ratio. Typically this is expressed as a percentage, looking at a company’s dividend per share relative to its net income per share. That’s a decent start, but I prefer to use a slightly different measurement that replaces net income, an accounting measurement, with something more tangible — cold hard cash. The chart below shows how much of Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)’s free cash flow has been eaten up by its dividend payments over the past two years. The lower the better, suggesting more capacity for future dividend hikes.