Google is proof of the idea that paying a dividend doesn't need to be a sign of weakness; it can be a sign that a company is throwing off so much cash it can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Google already spent $9.8 billion on research and development last year and still had almost $12 billion in free cash flow, according to its Jan. 29 earnings announcement. It also has $64.4 billion in cash and short-term investments. There's plenty left over to finance Google's forays into mobile and social Web businesses. And if they did a bit less R&D for Google Glass—which came in for a bit of abuse when the company said it was scrapping the original product—and driverless cars, many investors wouldn't mind. Like Apple, Google is big and profitable enough to play the growth and income cards simultaneously.
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The reasons not to pay a dividend: A 2 percent yield would cost Google $7 billion a year, and a huge chunk of it would go back into the pockets of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who are the largest individual shareholders of the stock. They aren't exactly hurting for short-term cash, and have so far preferred to let their bets ride.
"Put Google on the list just because they have a lot," Mahaney said.
Some investors read a comment from Google CFO Patrick Pichette on its recent earnings call as a sign it was more focused on the message Wall Street always likes to hear—rewarding shareholders today rather than sticking to its long-term, high risk R&D-or-bust mentality.
"Share price does matter," Pichette told analysts. "It matters to our board. It matters to all of us. We're all shareholders in the company. And we do review this issue on a regular basis. We review it again responsibly with the Audit Committee, with the board. And I just have nothing to announce today."
For the record, Pichette specifically said he was "reiterating" the same message he has always provided.