What DTE Energy Does With Its Cash

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, DTE Energy (NYS: DTE) .

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

Normalized Net Income

$618 million

$580 million

$493 million

$443 million

$183 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:

Free Cash Flow

$524 million

$726 million

$784 million

$186 million

($174 million)

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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

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


$389 million

$360 million

$348 million

$344 million

$364 million

Share Repurchases

$18 million



$16 million

$708 million

Total Returned To Shareholders

$407 million

$360 million

$348 million

$360 million

$1.1 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, if only slightly:

Shares Outstanding (millions)






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


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

This doesn't tell us much. Almost all of DTE's buybacks in the last five years came in 2007, and shares have been fairly range-bound ever since. Given reasonable valuations, these buybacks were likely a good deal for shareholders.

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


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned 54% over the last five years, which drops to 20% without dividends -- 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 DTE Energy's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorMorgan Houseldoesn'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.

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