What AmerisourceBergen 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, AmerisourceBergen (NYS: ABC) .

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

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income

$729 million

$642 million

$563 million

$490 million

$426 million


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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

$1.5 billion

$859 million

$900 million

$380 million

$710 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash AmerisourceBergen 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, invested in other companies and assets, or used to pay off debt.

Here's how much AmerisourceBergen has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends$124 million$95 million$70 million$52 million$40 million
Share Repurchases$783 million$511 million$507 million$457 million$1.4 billion
Total Returned to Shareholders$907 million$606 million$577 million$508 million$1.5 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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)268279295316357

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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 AmerisourceBergen fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Not bad. There is some quarter-to-quarter volatility -- particularly a big spike in 2007 -- but for the most part AmerisourceBergen's buybacks are consistent, regardless of share price. 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 42% over the last five years, which increases to 54% with dividends reinvested -- a nice boost to top off already decent 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 AmerisourceBergen's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

Add AmerisourceBergen to My Watchlist.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorMorgan Houseldoesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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