Dividend Policy With Reference To British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc

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Dividends and the implication of dividend choices have been the subject of much debate, particularly in the recent economic crisis where investors and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly nervous about the financial standing of companies in which they have an interest. On a basic level, dividends also provide a regular income to investors and, as such, the choice of how much dividend to pay out is seen as a critical signal from the management team. Investors will often select certain companies, based on the possibility that they are likely to receive a regular dividend and any changes in the underlying policies can have a very detrimental impact on the perceptions of both current and prospective investors.

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Although some investors will invest in a company for capital growth, the dividend level is still seen as a strong signal; therefore, regular analysis of dividend policies and payout rates are likely to be undertaken.

In this report, Sky (British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC (BSY.L)) will be looked at, in terms of the way in which it has approached dividend payout in the last five years. Theory relating to dividend policy and the approaches taken will then be considered in order to determine whether Sky has complied with general theories, or whether it has deviated from what would be expected based on theory. Empirical data is contained in the appendices.

Background to Sky

Before going on to consider the dividend policies and how these have been applied by Sky, it is helpful to put the matter in context and to determine the way in which the company has been performing, in recent years, so that this can be correlated with any changes in dividend policy. The company was formed in its current standing, back in 1990, when there was a merger of British Satellite Broadcasting and Sky Television. This was an equal merger and created the company that we see today, Sky. Prior to the merger, both companies were sustaining heavy financial losses and it was found that by undertaking the merger, it was possible to gain economies of scale. It was also possible for the two companies to draw on each other’s strengths, for example, British Satellite Broadcasting had a range of solid advertisers, whereas Sky Television was renowned for having a wider range of channels. By pooling these two resources, it was possible for the company to go from strength to strength and it would be expected that this will be reflected in the financial performance of the company, from this point onwards.

At the point of the merger, Sam Chisholm was the Chief Executive Officer and he remained in place, until 1997. He then handed over to Mark Booth; and, in 1999, Tony Ball went on to lead Sky during the period within which Sky Television was introduced. It was during this period that the company returned to profit and subscriber members rose at a substantial rate. As is the case with many large companies, Sky was not without its difficulties within the boardroom, particularly when James Murdoch was appointed, in 2003, as there were allegations of internal dealings from the shareholders and a general feeling of discontent, during this period.

These difficulties rumbled on and in 2007 Rupert Murdoch, the father of James Murdoch, stepped down from his role as non-executive chairman, but was then replaced by his son who stepped down from the position of CEO, being replaced by Jeremy Darroch.

During 2010, a takeover bid was made by News Corp where it attempted to gain control of the 61% of shares that it did not own, but were owned by other shareholders. The price offered was 700 pence per share; the shareholders rejected this offer, stating that they believed an offer of in excess of 800 pence per share would be necessary to make the deal appropriately valuable for the shareholders.

It should be noted that, were this takeover to continue, it would be necessary to gain permission from both the European Commission and the Office of Fair Trading, due to anti-competitive dangers of having such a large player in one industry.

Over the last 10 years, the profit within Sky has gone up and down with a particularly bad period being experienced during 2000 to 2002. Sky suffered a further drop in profit, in 2008, although this was largely attributed to the general financial crisis and individual inability to pay for what was perceived to be a luxury product.

These difficulties and corporate movements are likely to have a direct impact on the perceptions of investors and are therefore relevant to the way in which management boards deal with dividend payouts. Maintaining confidence in the company is critically important and when there are period of difficulties, such as those experienced in 2008, the decisions relating to issues such as dividend become even more critical for the management board, which is likely to pay particular attention to the messages that it is sending out through its dividend decisions. Based on this, when the dividend payments are being considered and the policies looked at, it is important to bear in mind that there are underlying commercial issues that could have a direct bearing on the choices being made and the impact that these choices have on the company.

Sky Dividend Approach

Despite the variable performance of Sky (BSkyB, 2010), it has maintained a growth policy when it comes to dividends. This is indicated by the fact that, when looking at the discussion on dividends, during the last five years’ reports, there is an emphasis placed on management confidence and the decision to offer strong dividends, even when the profit levels are weak. Appendix 1 contains the earnings per share calculations, as well as the dividend per share calculations.

Earnings per share reflect the amount of profit that can be attributed to each share. For example, in 2010, the calculation reflected profits before tax of £878 million divided by 1743 million shares, resulting in earnings per share of 50.4 pence. This earnings per share figure is the highest seen, in the last five years, with a figure in 2006 being 30.2 pence, dropping to a negative figure in 2008, before recovering, in 2009. Despite this dramatic fluctuation in the earnings per share, the company has maintained a consistent dividend policy because it had confidence in the strength of its position in the market. This consistent growth and confidence can be seen when looking at the dividend per share which is a reflection of the amount of equity dividends paid out per share. As would be expected, this is the highest in 2010; however, even in 2008, where the profit levels were negative, the dividend per share still increased on the 2007 figure. In fact, in every year of the last five years, the dividend per share figure has grown from the original figure of 12.2 pence per share, in 2006 to the current 19.4 pence per share. Essentially, these dividend per share figures show that the company has smoothed the negative impact of the downturn, in 2008.

Appendix 2 shows the dividend cover and dividend yield within the company, in the last five years. Dividend cover effectively shows how many times the profit could have paid the dividends actually paid. This is a measure of the company’s ability to pay its dividends and is a reflection of how realistic the dividend payments are.

Interestingly, the coverage rate in 2010 is very similar to that in 2006, at 2.6 times and 2.5 times, respectively. This suggests that the financial health of the company, in terms of the dividend promised, has remained relatively consistent, over the five years. However, as indicated earlier, there was a substantial drop in 2008 and this is reflected in the fact that the coverage ratio shows that the profits did not cover the dividend payments, during this period. Although it recovered slightly, in 2009, with the coverage of 1.2 times, it was not until 2010 that recovery was seen on the ratio returned to 2.6. Again, this would be expected, given the fact that the dividend payment increased year-on-year, despite a substantial dip in profits, during 2008. It has, however, shown by the confidence displayed by the management team, in 2008, that recovery was imminent and this confidence was correctly placed with those investors that have stayed with the company for the previous five years being rewarded by a higher dividend payment and higher share prices that they can now obtain for their shares.

Finally, we shall now look at the dividend yield, i.e. the return an investor obtains on the capital, which involves taking the dividend per share and dividing it by the share price. Many investors see this as the key figure as it indicates the financial return that they are receiving on each share and this can be used in comparison with alternative investment that may be available to the investor, for example bank accounts.

In this case, the dividend yield has fluctuated, in the last five years, reaching a high point in 2009, before dropping in 2010. It is not entirely unexpected, given the fact that, in 2009, the share prices were reasonably low after the poor performance of 2008 and the lack of general investor confidence and desirability of the shares. Despite this low share price that was in existence, in 2009, the dividends remained relatively high and therefore the return was naturally higher. As confidence increased in the shares, the share price would naturally rise, as there was a greater demand for shares in Sky and this will have the impact of reducing the dividend yield, as the dividends do not increase at the same rate. It should be noted, however, that the dividend yield is based on the share price in that given year and it is possible that investors who had purchased the shares, at an earlier date, when the prices were either higher or lower will find that there individual return is different. This supports the notion that those investors that have stayed with the company for the difficult period of 2008 and 2009 or alternatively those that chose to purchase shares during the troubled period will be gaining an increasing dividend yield, now the company is recovering.

The approach taken by Sky will be considered in the context of wider dividend policy theories, in the following section.

Dividend Policy Underlying Theories

Given the importance of dividends to the investors in the companies, it is unsurprising that there is a range of different theories underlying the ways in which companies deal with the dividend policy. From the previous analysis, it can be seen that Sky has opted to maintain a policy of dividend growth, regardless of underlying profit levels, in order to maintain confidence in the company and, in this case, confidence has been well-placed due to the fact that there was a substantial recovery, in 2010, despite the weak performance, in 2008. However, alternative theories exist that could have been used in order to determine the appropriate dividend policy for Sky, during the previous five-year period.

One theory which is often subscribed to is that of the residual policy. In accordance with this theory, a company will only pay dividends when it has residual earnings in place, for example, where it has taken advantage of all possible internal investment approaches. The argument in favour of this type of approach is that the shareholders will feel that the company is undertaking all possible action, in order to promote its long-term growth. By paying dividends when the company simply does not have the residual earnings to do so, there is an argument that the company is not putting itself in a good position for long-term growth. A secondary benefit from following this type of approach is that it refocuses the management team on ensuring that investment is undertaken and dividend policy becomes almost secondary. Furthermore, it reduces the chances of having to raise further equity by issuing new shares because any investment has been funded from the internal earnings; this can also have a benefit to shareholders, as their own shareholding will not be diluted. This is not an approach that has been taken by Sky as, had it followed this type of approach, no dividend would have been paid, in 2008. Instead, the company prioritised a dividend growth theory and did not make investments a priority (Gordon, 1963).

Another theory which has been developed by Modigliani and Miller (M&M), back in the 1960s, is that which argued that dividend policy was irrelevant when all factors were pulled together (Baker, 2009). They argued that the way in which a firm divides its earnings’ pot between paying out to shareholders and retaining the funds, internally is, in essence, irrelevant in the long term. When developing the theory, M&M relied on a range of assumptions including the notion that the way in which the company invests in growth is independent of its dividend decisions, and also that the company operates within a perfect capital market. For example, there are no transaction costs and no taxes and all investors have exactly the same information, at the same time. In theory, they argue that investors will act in a way that produces the correct level of dividend by either buying or selling shares, depending on how the company is performing. For example, if the company is not producing the level of dividend that an investor requires, then it will simply purchase more shares to get more dividends and vice versa. This suggests that the dividend policy of Sky’s management team would be largely irrelevant, as investors would simply shift, in order to obtain the returns that suit their own needs.

John Lintner (1962) also developed a dividend theory, namely the bird in the hand theory. The theory suggested that investors generally prefer to receive regular dividend payments, rather than reinvesting capital growth, in the future. This suggests that investors, on the whole, are risk-averse and prefer to receive dividend, in the current year, rather than potential growth in 5 to 10 years’ time. To a certain extent, Sky has followed this approach, because it recognises that providing a return to investors, on a year by year basis, is seen as preferable to promising long-term investment. Clearly, however, this type of theory will vary, depending on the needs of the individual investor. Some investors will be investing in shares with the view to long-term growth and therefore are less likely to pay attention to the dividend returns, on a year by year basis, (Frankfurter and Wood, 2002).

Finally, and arguably the most influential theory, when it comes to the approach taken by Sky is that of the dividend signalling theory. It is argued that, contrary to the dividend irrelevant theory, the dividend value actually does have a dramatic impact on the share price, due to the fact that the choice of dividend policy gives a signalling effect as to how well the management team thinks the company will perform, in the future (Brittain, 1966). A change in the dividend payment, either upwards or downwards, has been argued to offer a signal to shareholders and investors, in terms of what the likely future earnings will be. For example, if the management team is positive about the future of the company as a whole and that they may maintain a high dividend. When dividend payment is reduced, this can often negative signal to the market and is therefore something that a company will often avoid, even where profit levels are low, as was seen in the case of Sky, in 2008.

Summary and Conclusion

By analysing the background commercial position of Sky, in the last five years, its financial performance in relation to dividends and also wider dividend policy theories, it is clear to see that Sky is following a dividend signalling approach, as well as the dividend growth theory, by increasing its dividend, year-on-year, regardless of the underlying position of the company. There are several concerns associated with this approach. Firstly, where dividends are being paid out at a high level in years where the income is simply not there to sustain this level, it is possible that the company is missing out on investment opportunities and therefore long-term growth may not be as rapid as it could be. Clearly, this depends on the underlying ethos of the company and whether or not investment is essential to sustain growth or whether it prefers to follow the bird in hand theory, which suggests that shareholders prefer to have immediate returns. Furthermore, paying out high levels of dividend, even when there is no profit at all, is only sustainable for a certain period of time. Whilst, in this case, Sky returned to profit rapidly in 2009 and 2010 and therefore paying dividends in 2008 did not produce long-term financial difficulties for the company, had this not occurred, it is possible that the company would, ultimately, have suffered and run out of money to pay dividends. This may have required it to take out additional long-term loans, or to issue equity, which would eventually have had the impact of increasing costs and making the position within the company even more difficult to return to profit.

In this case, however, the management team at Sky correctly assessed that the company was in a strong position and likely to grow, in the coming years and signalled as much to the shareholders through maintaining a high level of dividend. This, in turn, meant that the share prices increased and this has been reflected in the dividend yield dropping slightly, in 2010. Overall, Sky has followed a growth and signalling theory, which has resulted in positive trends of the company, but nonetheless, caution should be used when applying this type of approach, as it relies on recovery, in order to be sustainable.

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