Dividends are like fruit and an investment in stock is much like purchasing a sapling. When purchasing a stock (sapling) the goal is two-fold: 1) Buy a sapling (tree) that is expected to bear a lot of fruit; and 2) Pay a cheap or fair price. If the right saplings are purchased at the right prices, then investors can enjoy a steady diet of fruit that has the potential of producing more fruit each year. Fruit can come in the form of future profits, but as we will see, the sweetness of a profitable company also paying dividends can prove much more fruitful over the long-term.
Investing in growth equities at reasonable prices seems like a pretty intelligent strategy, but of late the vast majority of fresh investor capital has been piling into bonds. This is not a flawed plan for retirees (and certain wealthy individuals) and should be a staple in all investment portfolios, to a degree (some of my client portfolios contain more than 80%+ in fixed income-like securities), but for many investors this overly narrow bond focus can lead to suboptimal outcomes. Right now, I like to think of bonds like a reliable bag of dried fruit, selling for a costly price. However, unlike stocks, bonds do not have the potential of raising periodic payments like a sapling with strong growth prospects. “Double-dippers” who are expecting the economy to spiral into a tailspin, along with nervous snakebit equity investors, prefer the reliability of the bagged dry fruit (bonds)… no matter how high the price.
How Sweet is the Fruit? How Does a +2,300% Yield Sound?
Not only do equities offer the potential of capital appreciation, but they also present the prospect of dividend hikes in the future – important characteristics, especially in inflationary environments. Bonds, on the other hand, offer static fixed payments (no hope of interest rate hikes) with declining purchasing power during periods of escalating general prices.
Given the possibility of a “double-dip” recession, one would expect corporate executives to be guarding their cash with extreme stinginess. On the contrary, so far in 2010, companies have shown their confidence in the recovery by increasing or initiating dividends at a +55% higher clip versus the same period last year. Underpinning these announcements, beyond a belief in an economic recovery, are large piles of cash growing on the balance sheets of nonfinancial companies. According to Standard & Poor’s (S&P), cash hit a record $837 billion at the end of March, up from $665 billion last year.
The S&P 500 dividend yield at 2.06% may not sound overwhelmingly high, but with CDs and money markets paying next to nothing, the Federal Funds rate at effectively 0%, and the 10-Year Treasury Note yielding an uninspiring 3.11%, the S&P yield looks a little more respectable in that light.
If the stock market yield doesn’t enthuse you, how does a +2,300% yield sound to you? That’s roughly what a $.05 (split adjusted) purchase of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) stock in 1972 would be earning you today based on the current $1.21 dividend per share paid today. That return alone is mind-blowing, but this analysis doesn’t even account for the near 1,000-fold increase in the stock price over the similar timeframe. That’s what happens if you can find a company that increases its dividend for 37 consecutive years.
Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) is another example. After PG increased its dividend for 54 consecutive years, from a split-adjusted $.01 per share in 1970 to a $1.93 payout today, original shareholders are earning an approximate 245% yield on their initial investment (excluding again the massive capital appreciation over 40 years). There’s a reason investment greats like Warren Buffett have invested in great dividend franchises like WMT, PG, Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), InBev (NYSE:BUD), Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), and American Express (NYSE:AXP).
Bad Apples do Exist
Dividend payment is not guaranteed by any means, as evidenced by the dividend cuts by financial institutions during the 2008-2009 crisis (e.g., BAC, WFC, C) or the discontinuation of BP PLC’s (NYSE:BP) dividend after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Bonds are not immune either. Although bonds are perceived as “safe” investments, the interest and principal payment streams are not fully insured – just ask bondholders of bankrupt companies like Lehman Brothers, Visteon, Tribune, or the countless other companies that have defaulted on their debt promises.
This is where doing your homework by analyzing a company’s competitive positioning, financial wherewithal, and corporate management team can lead you to those companies that have a durable competitive advantage with a corporate culture of returning excess capital to shareholders (see Investing Caffeine’s “Education” section). Certainly finding a WMT and/or PG that will increase dividends consistently for decades is no easy chore, but there are dozens of budding possibilities that S&P has identified as “Dividend Aristocrats” – companies with a multi-year track record of increasing dividends. And although there is uncertainty revolving around dividend taxation going into 2011, I believe it is fair to assume dividend payment treatment will be more favorable than bond income.
Growth companies that reinvest profits into new value-expanding projects and/or hoard cash on the balance sheet may make sense conceptually, but dividend paying cultures instill a self-disciplining credo that can better ensure proper capital stewardship by corporate boards. All too often excess capital is treated as funny money, only to be flushed away by overpaying for some high-profile acquisition, or meaningless share buybacks that merely offset generous equity grants to employees.
So, when looking at new and existing investments, consider the importance of dividend payments and dividend growth potential. Investing in an attractively priced sapling with appealing growth prospects can lead to incredibly fruitful returns.
*Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in BAC, WFC, C, BP, PG, KO, BUD, WFC, AXP, Lehman Brothers, Visteon, Tribune, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.