With interest rates still sitting near record lows, looking for current income have been forced to move away 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 Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS). 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, Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS) 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 why health-care spending will continue to grow.
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 Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS)’ 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 Novartis AG (ADR) (NYSE:NVS)’ 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.
Not all dividends are created equal. At first glance, a high dividend yield may look nice, but all too often, it means that a problem is lurking around the corner for a business. Looking at Novartis’ 3.5% dividend yield in isolation only tells half of the story, which is why investors need to have an understanding of how the market perceives a company prior to buying a stock. We can do this by comparing a few financial multiples, like price to earnings, to its peers in the industry.