What Atmos Energy 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, Atmos Energy (NYS: ATO) .

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

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income$197 million$201 million$179 million$183 million$168 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. When a company runs a cash-flow deficit, money is pulled from savings or raised through debt or equity financing:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow($41 million)$184 million$410 million($101 million)$155 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash Atmos Energy 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 Atmos Energy has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends$124 million$124 million$121 million$117 million$112 million
Share Repurchases$5 million$101 million------
Total Returned to Shareholders$142 million$229 million$123 million$118 million$115 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. But combined with other rounds of share issuance, shares outstanding have actually increased:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions)9091929089

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

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

This doesn't tell us much. Atmos Energy' buybacks have been sporadic, and its shares have been so range-bound in the last five years that it's hard to gauge management's behavior toward market swings. Given reasonable valuations, these buybacks have likely been a decent 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 1% over the last five years, which increases to 28% with dividends reinvested -- a nice boost to top off otherwise low 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 Atmos Energy's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

Add Atmos Energy 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.

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

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