Although analyzing historical trends is important, we think assessing what may happen in the future is even more important. That is why we created a forward-looking assessment of dividend safety through our innovative, predictive dividend-cut indicator, the Valuentum Dividend Cushion™. We use our future forecasts for free cash flow and expected dividends and consider the company's net cash position to make sure that each company is able to pay out such dividend obligations to you — long into the future. In this article, let's evaluate the investment merits of Exxon Mobil (XOM), as well as its dividend. We expect steady dividend growth for some time to come. In the spirit of transparency, our full report on Exxon and hundreds of other companies can be found here.
Return on Invested Capital
Exxon Mobil’s Dividend
Exxon's dividend yield is a 2.27% annual payout at recent price levels – we prefer yields above 3% and generally don’t like to include firms with yields below 2% in our dividend portfolio. That's why we like peers Chevron (CVX) and ConocoPhillips (COP) better.
Still, the think the safety of Exxon's dividend is EXCELLENT (please see our definitions at the bottom of this article). We measure the safety of the dividend in a unique but very straightforward fashion. As many know, earnings can fluctuate in any given year, so using the payout ratio in any given year has some limitations. Plus, companies can often encounter unforeseen charges (read hiccups in operations), which makes earnings an even less-than-predictable measure of the safety of the dividend in any given year. We know that companies won't cut the dividend just because earnings have declined or they had a restructuring charge that put them in the red for the quarter (year). As such, we think that assessing the cash flows of a business allows us to determine whether it has the capacity to continue paying these cash outlays well into the future.
That has led us to develop the forward-looking Valuentum Dividend Cushion™. The measure is a ratio that sums the existing cash a company has on hand plus its expected future free cash flows over the next five years and divides that sum by future expected dividends over the same time period. Basically, if the score is above 1, the company has the capacity to pay out its expected future dividends. As income investors, however, we'd like to see a score much larger than 1 for a couple reasons: 1) the higher the ratio, the more "cushion" the company has against unexpected earnings shortfalls, and 2) the higher the ratio, the greater capacity a dividend-payer has in boosting the dividend in the future.
For Exxon Mobil, this score is 3.3, offering both a nice "cushion" and revealing some excess capacity for future dividend growth. The beauty of the Dividend Cushion is that it can be compared apples-to-apples across companies. For example, Wal-Mart (WMT) scores a 1.4 on this measure. Also, for firms that have a score below 1 or that have a negative score, the risk of a dividend cut in the future is certainly elevated. In fact, the Valuentum Dividend Cushion caught all dividend cuts in our non-financial coverage universe, except for one, which subsequently raised its dividend above pre-cut levels (meaning it shouldn't have cut it in the first place). We use our dividend cushion as a key decision component in choosing companies for addition to the portfolio of our Dividend Growth Newsletter.
Now on to the potential growth of Exxon's dividend. As we mentioned above, we think the larger the "cushion" the larger capacity it has to raise the dividend. However, such dividend growth analysis is not complete until after considering management's willingness to increase the dividend. As such, we evaluate the company's historical dividend track record. If there have been no dividend cuts in 10 years, the company has a nice growth rate, and a nice dividend cushion, its future potential dividend growth would be EXCELLENT. In the case of Exxon Mobil, we rate the future potential dividend growth as GOOD.
We don't just stop there — we make it easy for the individual investor and financial adviser. By employing a matrix (in the image above), one can see above that Exxon Mobil has a fairly stable dividend — the cross section of its EXCELLENT safety and GOOD future potential growth scores. And because capital preservation is also an important consideration, we assess the risk associated with the potential for capital loss (offering investors a complete picture). In Exxon's case, we think the shares are fairly valued, so we rate the risk of capital loss as MEDIUM. If we thought the shares were undervalued, we would rate the risk of capital loss as LOW.
All things considered, we like the potential growth and safety of Exxon Mobil’s dividend, but the yield is a bit low to get us excited. We’d wait for a dividend increase or a pullback in the shares to consider it a nice income play.
The glossary below shows how we rate a company's dividend in each key area: