H&W in the Media

Apple, Microsoft Lead ’15 Payout Hikes But Pace Slows

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America’s biggest companies still sit on more than $1 trillion in cash, with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) alone holding $164 billion, but the pace of dividend increases so far in 2015 is the slowest in four years, amid the strong dollar, concerns about economic growth, and low commodity prices.

Among S&P 500 firms, there were 266 dividend increases this year through Sept. 24, down 8.9% from a year earlier, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices. It’s the slowest pace since 2011, when there were 242 dividend increases.

There have been 12 dividend decreases so far in 2015, up from 7 last year and one ahead of the 11 that occurred in 2013. There has been one dividend suspension this year. There were none during the previous two years.

The S&P 500 index as a whole still grew dividend payments by 10% in the second quarter. Payments are expected to grow another 6.5% in Q3 to a record $94.8 billion and look like they’ll set another record in Q4.

“The actual payments are very good,” said Howard Silverblatt, a senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “There could be a little bit more growth, but we are setting new records each quarter.”

Sagging commodity prices, especially for oil, have dragged down corporate earnings. Not surprisingly, they also are slowing the rate of dividend hikes.

In the energy sector, small-cap and midcap energy companies have been walloped, as the price of crude oil has more than halved since the summer of 2014.

But cash-rich, diversified large caps such as Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) are expected to raise their dividends, though deep-water oil rig firm Transocean (NYSE:RIG) slashed its dividend by 80% in response to falling oil prices.

Companies are loathe to cut shareholder payouts because investors expect them and may worry about a firm’s financial position. But if oil prices remain low, energy companies won’t be able to pay out cash that they don’t have.

Meanwhile, some tech heavyweights are leading the charge on increases. Earlier this month, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) boosted its quarterly dividend by 16% to 36 cents a share. Apple raised its quarterly dividend 11% earlier this year to 52 cents.

Other companies giving shareholders a boost in September were insurer Assurant (NYSE:AIZ), which raised its dividend by 67% to 50 cents, and tobacco giant Philip Morris (NYSE:PM), which boosted its dividend 2% to $1.02.

But the weak macroeconomic environment will continue to weigh. S&P 500 companies had their first revenue recession — defined as two consecutive quarters with declining revenue — since 2009, as Q2 revenue slipped 3.4%. The strong dollar and weaker economies overseas have hurt U.S. companies’ exports and foreign operations.

“I would expect, at the margins, there would be maybe slightly smaller dividend increases as earnings growth slows down,” said Hank Smith, chief investment officer of Haverford Trust. “The dollar has clearly had an impact on multinational earnings.”

When it comes to dollars, corporate America has a problem that a lot of people would like to have: how to spend its boatloads of cash. Firms can choose to do nothing, buy other companies, raise dividends or buy back shares.

“Companies have been engaging in all of those activities,” said Kevin Mahn, president and chief investment officer at Hennion & Walsh.

Click here to read the entire article at Investors.com.