What Macy's 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, Macy's (NYS: M) .

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


Normalized Net Income$1.2 billion$882 million$561 million$526 million$962 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

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:


Free Cash Flow$1.5 billion$1.2 billion$1.4 billion$1.1 billion$1.2 billion

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash Macy's 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 Macy's has returned to shareholders in recent years:


Dividends$148 million$84 million$84 million$221 million$230 million
Share Repurchases$502 million$1 million$1 million$1 million$3.3 billion
Total Returned to Shareholders$650 million$85 million$85 million$222 million$3.5 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:


Shares Outstanding (millions)425423422421447

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


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Pretty bad. The company bought back a lot of stock in 2007 when shares were high, almost none in 2008 and 2009 as they plunged, and came back with repurchases last year after shares rebounded. This is almost perfectly backward from what you should want to see.

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


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned -12% over the last five years, which increases to -3% 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 Macy's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

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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