Owners of media company bonds shouldn’t worry when they hear executives talk about returning cash to stockholders. The industry is no longer obsessed with mergers and big investments, much of which used to be paid for with debt. As a result, cash flow “has exploded”, Moody’s Investors Service SVP Neil Begley says in a report today. Even when companies repurchase shares and raise their dividends — things that stockholders love — they will “stop short of levering up” according to the debt rating firm. Begley based his conclusions in part on a study of 25 media companies’ fiscal policies over the last 10 years. He discovered that free cash flow grew an average of 10% a year, even as the percent of cash flow that went to shareholders rose. The companies had $35B last year vs an average of $24B from 2002 to 2008. With the economy improving “we expect (stock) repurchases in 2012 and 2013 will exceed pre-recession peaks of over 100% of free cash flow.” That will stop, of course, if the economy turns south again, Moody’s says.
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