What Wal-Mart Does With Its Cash

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In the quest to find great investments, most investors focus on earnings to gauge a company's financial strength. This is a good start, but earnings can be misleading and incomplete. To get a clearer understanding of a company's ability to earn money and reward you, the shareholder, it's often better to focus on cash flow. In this series, we tear apart a company's cash flow statement to see how much money is truly being earned, and more importantly, what management is doing with that cash.

Step on up, Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) .

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. Wal-Mart's net income over the last five years has been impressive:

Year

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized net income

$15 billion

$14.7 billion

$14 billion

$13 billion

$12 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Next, we add back in a few noncash expenses like the depreciation of assets, and adjust net income for changes in inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable -- changes in cash levels that reflect a company either paying its bills, or being paid by customers. This yields a figure called cash from operating activities -- the amount of cash a company generates from doing everyday business.

From there, we subtract capital expenditures, or the amount a company spends acquiring or fixing physical assets. This yields one version of a figure called free cash flow, or the true amount of cash a company has left over for its investors after doing business:

Year

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free cash flow  

$11.4 billion

$10.9 billion

$14.1 billion

$11.6 billion

$5.7 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Now we know how much cash Wal-Mart is really pulling in each year. Next question: What is it doing with that cash?

There are two ways a company can use free cash flow to directly reward shareholders: dividends, and share repurchases. Cash not returned to shareholders can either be stashed away in the bank, used to invest in other companies, or to pay off debt.

Here's how much Wal-Mart has returned to shareholders in recent years:

Year

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends

$4.9 billion

$4.4 billion

$4.2 billion

$3.7 billion

$3.6 billion

Share repurchases

$8.8 billion

$14.8 billion

$7.3 billion

$3.5 billion

$7.7 billion

Total returned to shareholders

$13.6 billion

$19.2 billion

$11.5 billion

$7.3 billion

$11.3 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

As you can see, the company has been a prolific buyer of its own shares. That's caused its shares outstanding to fall:

Year

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares outstanding (millions)3,4923,6563,8663,9394,066

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Now, companies tend to be fairly poor at repurchasing their own shares, buying feverishly when shares are expensive and backing away when they're cheap. Does Wal-Mart fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Wal-Mart's stock has been fairly stable in recent years, and reasonably cheap measured against earnings and cash flow. On an annualized basis, the company's share repurchases have looked prudent, and have likely been a good, efficient way to return cash to shareholders.

Finally, I like to look at how dividends have added to total shareholder returns:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Over the last five years, Wal-Mart shares have returned 39%, which drops to 25% without dividends -- not a bad boost to top off already respectable share performance.

To gauge how well a company is doing, keep an eye on the cash. How much a company earns is not as important as how much cash is actually coming in the door, and how much cash is coming in the door isn't as important as what management actually does with that cash. Remember, you, the shareholder, own the company. Are you happy with the way management has used Wal-Mart's cash? Sound off in the comments section below.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Wal-Mart. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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