Disappearing Dividends

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Here's an excellent Bloomberg story on the importance of dividends in equities' total returns. The opening passages are sobering:

The fastest reduction in U.S. dividends since 1955 is depriving investors of the only thing that gave stocks an advantage over government bonds in the last century.

U.S. equities returned 6 percent a year on average since 1900, inflation-adjusted data compiled by the London Business School and Credit Suisse Group AG show. Take away dividends and the annual gain drops to 1.7 percent, compared with 2.1 percent for long-term Treasury bonds, according to the data.

A total of 288 companies cut or suspended payouts last quarter, the most since Standard & Poor's records began 54 years ago, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. While the S&P 500 is trading at the lowest price relative to earnings since 1985 and all 10 Wall Street strategists tracked by Bloomberg forecast a rally this year, predictions based on dividends show shares are overvalued by as much as 46 percent.

"It's a greater fool theory if we always buy stocks based on earnings and we never get a penny out of it, hoping for someone to buy that stock at a higher price," said James Swanson, chief investment strategist at MFS Investment Management in Boston, which oversees $134 billion. "Dividends have been a cushion in bad times. If they go to zero it's a disaster."

Read the whole thing. And be sure to click on "graphic" up above the story's headline. The accompanying chart tells the story in one pretty (and not-so-pretty) picture.