What Telephone and Data Systems 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, Telephone and Data Systems (NYS: TDS) .

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. Telephone and Data Systems' net income over the last five years has been impressive:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income$207 million$183 million$260 million$346 million$414 million

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

Next, we add back in a few non-cash 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:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow$418 million$367 million$431 million$114 million$241 million

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

Now we know how much cash Telephone and Data Systems 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 be stashed in the bank, used to invest in other companies, or to pay off debt.

Here's how much Telephone and Data Systems has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends$48 million$47 million$47 million$47 million$46 million
Share Repurchases$39 million$68 million$179 million$198 million$127 million
Total Returned to Shareholders$87 million$115 million$225 million$245 million$172 million

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

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. That's caused shares outstanding to fall:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions)113114119126128

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 Telephone and Data Systems fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.   

This is impressive. Telephone and Data's biggest buybacks over the last five years came after shares plunged. Very few companies can say the same thing these days. Given reasonable valuations, these buybacks have likely been a good deal for shareholders.

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

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned -52% over the last five years, which drops to -55% without dividends -- a small boost to top off otherwise poor 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 Telephone and Data Systems' cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. 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.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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