Disney Dividend Under Scrutiny After Theme-Park, Movie Shutdowns

(Bloomberg) -- Walt Disney Co. has slashed executive salaries, put tens of thousands of employees on unpaid furloughs and tapped bond markets for cash to weather the coronavirus storm. Could the company’s rich dividend be next?

The Burbank, California,-based entertainment giant is expected to pay an 88-cent-a-share dividend in July. That’s a $1.59 billion payment at a time when Disney’s theme parks are closed, movie theaters are dark and its lucrative ESPN cable channel has no live sports to broadcast.

“While not debated recently in our conversations with investors, it will be interesting to see if Disney decides to continue to paying its dividend while ~100k employees are furloughed,” Credit Suisse analyst Douglas Mitchelson wrote on Monday.

While Disney shares are held by many individual shareholders who rely on the dividend for income in retirement, the company is likely to see its credit rating downgraded as its debt leverage spikes above agency targets, he said. At the current stock price of about $102, the stock yields 1.72%.

UBS analyst John Hodulik also flagged the risk that Disney suspends its dividend in a Monday note, citing declining profit and rising debt.

“This profile suggests the company may consider postponing its ~$3B annual dividend given the majority of Disney’s businesses are shuttered and employees furloughed,” he wrote.

Family Affair

Abigail Disney, a Disney heiress and persistent critic of executive pay, took to Twitter Tuesday to criticize continued payment of the dividend and the bonuses that company executives could collect even with salary reductions.

The dividend, she said, would “pay for three months salary to front line workers. And it’s going to people who have already been collecting egregious bonuses for years.”

Disney didn’t immediately respond to her comments. Bonuses and other incentive pay at Disney are largely based on performance metrics, such as profit.

Other companies have suspended their dividends, including Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Estee Lauder Cos.

Beyond payroll reductions, Disney hasn’t commented other steps it may be taking to reduce costs, such as capital-spending reductions at its theme parks, which have been closed since mid-March. The company is scheduled to report quarterly results on May 5.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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