NEW YORK ( Stockpickr) -- Nearly half a decade after a deep recession, the U.S. economy may finally be poised for a sustained upturn. Economists are now looking for GDP growth in the second half of 2013 to approach 3% or even exceed that level.
A firming economy can have a profound impact on a company's capital allocation strategies. If the economy can finally gain altitude, companies will be increasingly willing to part with all of the cash that has been piling up on balance sheets.
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Some of that cash will be spent on share buybacks and acquisitions, but a big chunk of the money will be earmarked for major dividend hikes. And it's pretty easy to spot the companies that are best-positioned for dividend increases: the firms that still maintain very low payout ratios. Companies that pay out less than 20% of their income can still manage to double their dividends and maintain a payout ratio in the reasonable 35% to 40% range.
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In the middle of the last decade,
(F - Get Report)
paid out 40 cents a share in annual dividends. That dividend was eventually eliminated to conserve cash, but thanks to a recent doubling in the quarterly dividend to 10 cents a share, Ford is right back to that 40 cents a share annualized payout.
And this automaker is just getting started. Ford is now so much more profitable than before, and its cash-rich balance sheet is so much stronger, that the dividend might double again from here. A hike to an 80 cents a share annual payout would equate to a 6.1% dividend yield.
Considering that Ford is now quite profitable -- and poised to become even more profitable in coming years as the European and U.S. economies improve -- management will become less fixated on maintaining absurdly high levels of cash. The company had $23 billion in gross cash at the end of 2011 and $27 billion at the end of 2012, and it should have $35 billion in cash by the end of 2014, according to Merrill Lynch.