Contractors look to dividends to appease shareholders
By Marjorie Censer,
Government contractors are taking new steps, offering dividends or initiating share repurchases, to woo investors wary of a looming slowdown in federal spending.
McLean-based Science Applications International Corp., which like many other contractors has seen declining profit in recent months, announced in March that it would begin a quarterly dividend of 12 cents per share and made its first payment in late April.
Last month, Arlington-based CACI International — on the same day it announced its chief executive would depart — said it would repurchase 4 million of the company’s common stock shares, boosting the value of the remaining shares.
The initiative marked the second share repurchase in the fiscal year; the first was announced last summer and completed in May.
Even McLean-based Booz Allen Hamilton, which has been able to post significant profit increases, in May declared a special dividend of $1.50 per share, following its initiation of regular quarterly dividends in February.
In a statement, Booz Allen said dividends are just one potential use of its excess cash.
“We believe that the recent issuance of a special dividend of $1.50 per share, in addition to the regular quarterly dividend of nine cents per share, represented the best use of a portion of our cash reserves,” the statement said.
“Companies have got to pay investors . . . to wait for this budgetary environment to turn,” said Michael S. Lewis, director of equity research at Lazard Capital Markets. “I think that you’re going to see more companies that have a lot of cash do more shareholder-friendly activity, whether it’s a company that’s never done a share repurchase or a company that’s never done a dividend.”
Lewis said the move signals to investors a confidence in the business — despite tough times.
SAIC declined to comment for this article, but Mark W. Sopp, the company’s chief financial officer, said in a call with investors that the company plans to pay about $165 million in cash dividends for the fiscal year.
This level “allocates a significant percentage of our normative free cash flow — roughly 25 percent to 30 percent — as a return of cash to our shareholders.”
CACI officials also declined to comment.
The verdict is out on whether these kinds of moves can last. Contractors are already starting to feel the pain of government spending cuts, but analysts and industry officials generally expect these reductions to worsen. In particular, contractors are closely watching a roughly $1 trillion cut to government spending — known as sequestration — that would hit in early January if Congress doesn’t change existing law.
“Companies can do these . . . traditionally shareholder-friendly things . . . to either reward investors or to buy time with them,” said Roman Schweizer, an aerospace and defense policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities. “The incentivization to encourage people to wait around can work,” he added, but “the big bellwether will be if and when companies start to feel the bite of the drawdown and certainly sequestration.”