Can CenturyLink Sustain Its New Dividend After Full-Year 2018 Results?

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Shares of internet service provider CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) are plumbing fresh lows after reporting a solid conclusion to 2018 and slow but steadily improving profitability. The real news, though, was the surprising -- but also not-so-surprising -- announcement that the annual dividend is being cut from $2.16 per share to $1.00 per share. While the previous yield was a ridiculous 14%, management had indicated it was on solid footing. The new yield is still a generous 7.7% as of this writing, and CenturyLink has new plans for that cash going forward. Is the new payday amount sustainable? The short answer is yes, but there are question marks surrounding the why.

First, a review of 2018

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After CenturyLink's takeover of Level 3 Communications in 2017, investors may have been hoping for better sales results. That didn't transpire this year as the telecom's legacy services continue to slide. The good news, though, is that the company completed its cost-cutting initiatives post-Level 3 merger a couple of years ahead of schedule, providing a big boost to free cash flow (money left over after basic operations and capital expenditures are paid for).

Because of the aggressive cost-cutting associated with the integration of Level 3, CenturyLink's tenuous-looking dividend actually seemed like a safe bet -- even though total dividends paid out ballooned because of the extra shares CenturyLink issued to help pay for the acquisition. The dividend payout ate up about 60% of free cash flow last year.

Management said it expects free cash flow to drop to between $3.1 billion to $3.4 billion in 2019, in large part due to increased capital expenditures (purchase of property and equipment) of $3.5 to $3.8 billion -- thus the surprise from some investors that the payout got a haircut, as the $2.16 per share a year would have put dividends paid at roughly $2.3 billion in total: still well within the free-cash-flow guidance. With the payday dropping to just $1.00 a share and $1.08 billion in total consideration, the payout ratio to cash flow will be around 30%. Long story short, the new dividend yield is easily sustainable assuming nothing drastically deviates from CenturyLink's expectations.

The call with management gets intense, and personal

But the question remains: Why make the cut if it was still doable? David Barden, an analyst at Bank of America, asked for more details on the earnings call:

Fair question. Where will that cash go? We'll have to wait and see, as the answer given was somewhat vague. However, it would seem that debt reduction and investment back into the business will be priorities. That could be a good move as total long-term debt sat at $35.4 billion, and cash and equivalents were $488 million at the end of 2018.

Additionally, CenturyLink also took an impairment charge (a writedown on a business's value) of $2.73 billion on the "consumer business segment" in the fourth quarter. That underscores the pressure CenturyLink has been under as the way households communicate has rapidly changed the last decade. More pressure is on the way with the initial launch of 5G mobile networks, like Verizon's 5G Home, which is meant to be a replacement for traditional broadband internet service.

Thus, while the timing of the dividend drop may come as a surprise, the payout reduction CenturyLink just enacted makes sense. If the internet service provider is to remain a healthy and viable company over the long term, it needs cash to shore up its balance sheet and to reinvest back into new and improved internet services. The good news is, with a 7.7% yield, it still looks like a pretty good income-generating stock.

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Nicholas Rossolillo and his clients own shares of CenturyLink and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.