CAPITAL STRUCTURE POLICIES : Returning cash to shareholders
Net profit can only be used in two ways: it can be reinvested in the firm in the form of retained earnings or distributed in the form of dividends, share buy-backs or a capital reduction.
Internal financing by reinvestment of cash flow enjoys an excellent image: it reduces risk for the creditor and results in capital gains rather than more heavily taxed dividends for the shareholder. For managers, it is a resource they can mobilise without having to go to third parties; as such, it reduces the company’s risk and increases the value of their stock options.
For the same reason, though, systematic reinvestment of cash flow can be dangerous. It is not appealing from a financial standpoint if it allows the company to finance investments that bring in less than the rate of return required given their risk. To do so is to destroy value. If the penalty for value destruction is delayed, as it often is because companies that reinvest excessively are cut off from the capital markets, the eventual sanction is all the harsher.
The trap for the unwitting is that internal financing has no explicit cost, whereas its true cost – which is an opportunity cost – is quite real.
Reinvesting cash flow makes organic growth possible at a rate equal to the rate of return on equity multiplied by the earnings retention ratio (1 minus the payout ratio). With constant financial leverage and a constant rate of return on capital employed, the organic growth rate is the same as the growth rate of book equity and capital employed. Lastly, the rate of growth of earnings per share is equal to the marginal rate of return on book equity multiplied by the earnings retention ratio.
Dividends as well as share buy-backs aim at giving back to shareholders funds that cannot be invested by the firm at the appropriate cost of capital. This then allows the firm to avoid value destruction. In macroeconomic terms, it makes it possible to reallocate funds from mature companies to start-ups and developing companies that require equity to finance their business risk.
Dividend payments can serve secondary goals:
reducing the flexibility of the management, who may otherwise invest in value-destroying projects;
signalling that the firm has sufficient stable cash flow to support a high level of debt;
answering the wishes of shareholders, who, depending on the environment, might be willing to pay more for high-payout firms or, on the contrary, low-dividend firms;
granting shareholders cash, as they may need it, in particular when the company is private;
modifying gradually the shareholder base, reinforcing the power of certain shareholders compared to others.