Why Apple Should Have Inverted Its Dividend and Buyback Priorities

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Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) may have pleased investors initially with its earnings report this week. The problem in Tim Cook’s capital return plan may simply be that Apple is just too focused on buybacks rather than on dividends. Some investors will feel that this is six of one or half a dozen of another, but the reality is that companies send very different messages when they choose to spend more money on buybacks or more money on dividends.

The view of 24/7 Wall St. is that Tim Cook should have been more focused on dividends than on buybacks. There may be a myriad of reasons that Cook did this, and it has admittedly been pretty hard to fault Apple to date. Still, the sell-the-news reaction in Apple shares after earnings would indicate that investors might be thinking the best of the best has been seen.

24/7 Wall St. already identified the details on how close to a dozen key Wall Street analysts are rating Apple now after earnings. While their ratings were very positive, some dividend-hungry investors are likely to feel like the money that could be used to pay them for owning the stock is being used for buybacks instead.

When we projected the dividend hike last week, it was up to “around $0.60 per share” versus the existing $0.47 per share. It turns out that this was just too much to ask, even from the mighty Apple. We even noted, “It could of course be much higher if the company wanted to, but there are several issues that may keep the dividend hike from doubling or going crazy.”

The real issue was this — a quarterly $0.60 dividend per share still only would have taken Apple’s yield up to almost 1.9%. That would have only been a 28% payout ratio, before buybacks, or so against the consensus estimate of $8.70 in earnings per share for 2015 (and about a 25% payout ratio against the $9.38 EPS consensus estimate for 2016).

After Apple reinstated its dividend in late 2012, the first hike was by 15%. The second dividend hike, in 2014, was roughly 8%. This new dividend hike of 11% up to $0.52 might be impressive to most investors, but even IBM just on this same day was able to raise its payout by a larger amount. While IBM is at a far different stage of its business and while IBM is struggling to find any growth, some Apple investors have to at least keep this mind.

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Another issue to consider was that Apple’s yield had to go up more than this dividend hike would be just to make a dent in the dividend game. Taking the dividend hike to $0.60 would have been a nearly a 28% payout hike — and that would have only generated close to a 1.9% yield.