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Microsoft May Disappoint With 19% Payout Boost

Microsoft Corp., the world’s largest software maker, is likely to raise its dividend 19 percent as early as this week, frustrating investors who are clamoring for a bigger payout from its $52.8 billion cash hoard.

The projected increase — to 19 cents a share per quarter, from 16 cents, based on data compiled by Bloomberg — would be similar to last year’s rise. While Microsoft’s board is aware of the shareholder demands, it will probably stick with the usual increase, a person familiar with the board’s thinking said.

Microsoft’s cash and short-term investments swelled 43 percent in the past fiscal year. With the shares losing more than 7 percent of their value in 2011, more investors want the company to boost its payout. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer has said that Microsoft’s dividend policy is to raise payments in line with annual gains in operating income, which climbed 13 percent in the year that ended in June.

“That cash is better in our hands than theirs,” said Pat Becker Jr., a fund manager at Portland, Oregon-based Becker Capital Management Inc., which oversees $2.2 billion in assets, including Microsoft shares. “I’d hope they’d raise it more.”

In light of investor sentiment, Microsoft is considering a larger increase, said the person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the decision is private. Still, the board is more likely to retain its policy of raising the payout in line with operating income, the person said.

Peter Wootton, a spokesman for Microsoft, declined to comment.

Smaller Than Average?

Microsoft has paid out about 25 percent of earnings as dividends since starting the payments in 2003, according to Bloomberg data. Dividend-paying companies with similar market valuations to Microsoft are paying closer to 40 percent to 50 percent, the data show.

Returning more cash to investors also may be hindered by Microsoft’s overseas holdings. About half of the company’s cash is offshore, according to a research note by Heather Bellini, an analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York. That means Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft would have to pay taxes if the company brings it into the U.S. to use for dividends. Bellini anticipates that the dividend will rise to 18 cents to 20 cents.

Microsoft shares rose 15 cents to $25.89 yesterday on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock has declined 7.2 percent this year.

Technology Peers

Among technology company peers, Microsoft’s payout falls in the middle. Intel Corp., Sage Group Plc and SAP AG are paying a larger portion of earnings, while Oracle Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and CA Inc. pay less, Bloomberg data show.

Bloomberg dividend forecasts look at seven criteria, including dividend history and public estimates. A payout increase to 19 cents would boost the yield to 2.9 percent from 2.5 percent currently, according to Bloomberg data.

“If Microsoft were to match its peers on payout ratios, it would equate to a dividend yield increase to 6 percent from the current 2.6 percent, and include an approximate doubling of the company’s dividend,” said Neil Herman, an analyst at Ticonderoga Securities, in a research report last month.

The shares might surge past $35 if the board decided to “majorly boost the company’s dividend,” Herman said.

Source: Bloomberg