Friday, 27 November 2009

Business and Dividend Life Cycles

Business life cycles are most influenced by access to resources and capital. 

A company's success and development are also affected by a host of outside factors - competition from companies in the same industry, economic conditions, even changing consumer preferences.

There are 6 phases in a company's development that influence its dividend policy:

1. The Start-Up Phase:   In the start-up phase, someone invest cash for stock in the business to develop products, hire employees, pay for equipment, and rent space.  It is not unusual for a company to raise seed money from professional investors and enter the start-up phase with a hundred or more employees.  A small company needs to plow all profits back into growing and perfecting its business model to survive.

2.  The Early Growth Phase:  If the company launch is successful, it will enter the early growth phase.  As the demand for its products and services increases, sales and profits increase.  The company will need to reinvest all cash flow and profit to achieve competitive scale.

3.  The Late Stage Growth Phase:  In the late stage growth phase, the company continues to grow and may begin to pay a small dividend, usually 10 to 15% of earnings.  This is a clear signal to investors that the company has reached a level of stability in profits and cash flow necessary to support a dividend.

4.  The Expansion Phase:  If the company is well run, it will enter the expansion phase.  Its rate of growth may slow as competitors take some of the company's market share.  Companies at this stage generally increase their dividend payout ratio to approximately 30 to 40% of earnings.

5.  The Maturity Phase:  Companies can continue to expand even as they reach their maturity phase, but their growth rate usually slows measurably.   Well-run mature companies can continue to be a competitive force in their respective industries for decades or even several generations.  Many of the companies in this group are mature companies, a few over a century old.  It is during this stage that companies tend to increase their dividend payout ratios to 50 to 60% of earnings, which provides investors with generous dividend income.

6.  The Decline Phase:  In the later stages, many companies fail to innovate - to keep their competitive advantage.  These companies will enter the decline phase, and unless they reinvent themselves, they will eventually cease to exist.  In this phase, as sales and profits decline, they will eventually reduce or eliminate their dividend payouts. 

Beware of attempting to buy or hold the stock of a company in the final stages of its business life cycle.

Business and Dividend Life Cycles
Start Up
Growth Rate 20%
Dividend Payout Ratio 0%

Early Growth
Growth Rate 30%
Dividend Payout Ratio 0%

Late Stage Growth
Growth Rate 35%
Dividend Payout Ratio 15%

Growth Rate 25%
Dividend Payout Ratio 30%

Growth Rate 20%
Dividend Payout Ratio 55%

Growth Rate < 5% and declining
Dividend Payout Ratio < 20%

AT&T is a great example of a company currently in decline, possibly on its way to extinction. 

Beware of attempting to buy or hold the stock of a company in the final stages of its business life cycle.

At one time, AT&T was the most widely held stock in America.  The company paid its first dividend in 1893 and became known as the widows and orphans stock because it was such a consistent source of dividend payments for investors.  AT&T's history dates back to 1875.  The company's founder, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the telphone and together with several investors started the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation.  As a telephone company, AT&T was so successful it achieved regulated monopoly status.  In 1984, the US Department of Justice broke the AT&T monopoly into eight companies:  seven regional operating "Bells" and AT&T.

For most of its history, AT&T had been largely insulated from market pressures and competitive forces.  After the break up, smaller and leaner communication companies stole AT&T's market share, first through price competition and later by becoming product innovators.  For the new AT&T to successfully compete in an unregulated environment, it would require a drastic change in corporate culture.  Over the past few years, operations and profits have continued to decline, and AT&T is now struggling to survive. 

AT&T's story of dominance and decline highlights the constant need for you to follow up your initial purchase analysis with a routine review to see if the companies you hold are performing as expected. 

  • Each time you decide to continue to hold a stock, you are in fact making a new buying decision. 
  • Understanding the business life cycle outlined above will enable you to identify companies that are about to emerge as great dividend payers, as well as help you to spot the mature companies headed down the road to extinction.

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