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AT&T: Dividends and Buybacks Work Just Fine

Stocks in this article: T BLK

NEW YORK ( F.A.S.T. Graphs) -- Recently I happened upon the article of a fellow contributor detailing Blackrock (BLK) CEO Larry Fink's ideas of the current state of the stock market. Within this commentary it detailed how Fink believes that dividends and buybacks are the catalyst for the recent stock market rally, rather than increased profitability and a strong economy. In turn, it would seem that this could indicate a seemingly unsustainable path forward.

However, I would like to make two points on this notion. First, instead of looking at the "stock market" I like to think of it as a "market of stocks." It's paramount to remember that stocks represent ownership stakes in the underlying businesses, which are analogous to owning your hometown restaurant. It follows that what the market is doing and what any individual company is doing can vary greatly. So while Fink's statements might carry weight in the aggregate, they are not necessarily representative of every enterprise.

The second point is -- depending on the company -- I would contend that relying almost solely on dividend and buybacks could actually work out quite well for some investors. To this regard, I would like to use telecom powerhouse AT&T (T) as an example.

Based in Dallas, AT&T has nearly a quarter of a million employees who provide telecom service to virtually every country in the world. The AT&T name traces its roots all the way back to the beginning with Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone. However, the legacy company itself was forced to break up in 1984 through an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. From this arrangement, SBC Communications was formed along with a variety of smaller telephone companies. SBC began aggressively acquiring communication providers in the late 1990s, and in 2005 acquired AT&T Corp., shedding the SBC name in lieu of the iconic AT&T. This created the new AT&T and continues the storied history.

In viewing the past operating history of AT&T, it is prudent to view the company from the time of the SBC acquisition moving forward. Below I have included an Earnings and Price Correlated F.A.S.T. Graph for AT&T dating to 2006. Here we see that operating earnings (orange line) have been growing at just over 9% a year for the last eight years, while price has generally followed earnings. In addition, it's useful to recognize that the dividend (pink line) has been steadily increasing over this time period. Note that the payout ratio grew to over 100% recently due in large part to charges related to the failed T-Mobile acquisition.

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