Imagine that you have two companies that are selling for the same valuation, which are also in the same industry and have similar current yields. Both companies would be characterized as "quality dividend paying ones," as they each have strong branded products that consumers buy, good pricing power, and opportunities for growth. Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) fit my idea of what a quality dividend growth company is.
The question to answer is, if you wanted to buy the shares in just one of the companies, which one would you purchase?
For me, the answer is always to look for the one with the higher growth potential. It is a no brainer decision to select the company with the highest expected growth, particularly if the valuations are similar.
In reality however, investor expectations are just that, expectations. They do not become tangible fact, until enough time has passed in order for you to determine if those expectations occurred or not. In other words, if I expect Coca-Cola to double earnings per share every decade for the next 30 years, I would have to wait until 2044, until I can say if my expectation was right. One can expect a lot of things changing from now until 2044, many of which might not be even comprehensible for someone thinking about the future in 2014.
Therefore, in my stock selection process, I focus on the quantitative factors and the qualitative factors, but I always try to leave room for error. This is why I never really put exact fair values on stock prices, based on coming up with a future growth rate, and then discounting it back. At the end of the day, this method could provide the investor with a fair value and a premium or discount relative to current prices for companies they are analyzing. However, this method would also provide you with a precise numbers, which in reality are just an illusion that is dependent on investors' assumptions. If you change your assumptions, and the "precise numbers" changes as well. This is why I merely bump companies against each other, and select the ones that look best. I described how I compare between dividend companies in a previous article.
The precision behind those fair values is an illusion that is derived from making expectations on future growth rates in earnings or dividends, and discounting them back using an estimated rate. I believe that investors who only look at that are essentially outsourcing their ability to think critically to a formula.
Instead, I believe that the better way to do things is to keep it simple. If you have companies with similar valuations but higher growth rates, you might want to go for the growth one. However, you might also decide to hedge your bet and purchase the lower growth one, just in case. It doesn't make sense to make a lot of projections, do excess calculations, and discount those amounts to the present, when you can merely compare the expectations at the same levels of valuations and be done with it. However, if you can find a company that sells at a lower valuation, and can still provide consistent growth, I would say you might have found yourself a winner. In the case of Coca-Cola versus PepsiCo, I would say both companies might be good acquisitions today, even if one has different growth expectations behind each.
For example, Coca-Cola sells for 19.40 times forward earnings. The company yields between 3% and has a five-year dividend growth rate of 8.10%/year. The ten-year dividend growth rate is 9.80%/year. In comparison, the company has managed to grow earnings per share by 7.90%/year in the past decade. Check my analysis of Coca-Cola.
PepsiCo sells for 18.90 times forward earnings, yields 3.10%, and has a five-year dividend growth rate of 7%/year. The ten-year dividend growth rate is 13.70%/year. In comparison, the company has managed to grow earnings per share by 7.70%/year in the past decade. Check my analysis of PepsiCo.
I also believe one needs to do the actual work in looking at companies, researching past data, and making some assumptions about the future. However, as we know that assumptions are tough to figure out exactly in advance, it is important to try and focus on best valuations available at the present time. This could be evidenced by a low price to earnings ratios for example. After all, sustainable earnings per share, coupled with a moderate but consistent growth in those earnings per share will result in quiet but sure compounding of wealth and dividend income over time. In other words, why swing for the fences, chasing a percent in yield or growth, when you can do reasonably well and protect and grow wealth and income? The risk in chasing growth at any price is that if growth does not materialize, you may be stuck holding on to a company that doesn't deliver much in dividends and dividend growth, while your capital contracts in value. In contrast, for a company with a dependable earnings and dividends growth, purchased at an attractive valuation, a decline in growth would not affect an investor as badly.
For example, if you purchase a company that yields 2% and grows dividends at 15%/year, you might do well for many years, while getting an increasing yield on cost. However, if growth slows down, you might be left holding a low yielder without the benefit of fast growth. In comparison, a 3% yielder that grows by 7% is not too bad of a choice, even if growth drops to say 3-4%, because the yield is sufficient to cover a higher portion of expenses in retirement. Of course, those growth rates are not known in advance, as only the yield is locked at time of purchase. However, even assumptions about its sustainability are subject to folly as well.
In reality, each company will have different yield/growth characteristics, which is why you need to assemble a diverse portfolio of quality businesses, purchased at attractive valuations. That safety in numbers can be very beneficial in guarding the investor against folly. I have chased high yielding stocks before, and have gotten burned in the process. I have also chased high dividend growth stocks, which stopped raising dividends as fast. But by assembling a mix of the three types of dividend growth stocks I focus on, I ensure that my diversified portfolio can withstand different pressures on its components, and still provide me with the growing income in retirement.
Disclosure: I am long KO, PEP. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.