I am a firm believer that companies that pay dividends by default represent an elite group of sound enterprises which should comprise an investor’s watchlist for further research. The second criterion should be focusing on fundamentals in order to determine whether the company could afford to not only generate enough cash to grow and maintain its business, but also to be able to distribute any excess to shareholders in the form of dividends. The third criterion that I use is that the company has been able to grow distributions for at least ten consecutive years. These criteria pretty much decrease the list of eligible dividend stocks to less than 300.
Nonbelievers of dividend investing often claim that only poorly managed companies or companies which are in decline tend to pay dividends. This group of investors often is under the false belief that a company will be able to reinvest all of its earnings back into the business, while achieving high incremental returns on investment. The problem with this strategy is that in the real world of corporate governance, it is extremely difficult for companies to reinvest all of their earnings back into the business and still maintain high profitability on any excess reinvested dollars. This is because of constraints in the utilization of these assets, management’s desire to build an empire at all costs, expensive acquisitions, bad timing of capital allocations and simply because not all investments are guaranteed to earn a profit. Warren Buffett is often cited as the type of manager who has been able to allocate funds to profitable ventures, and thus has avoided paying dividends to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. The only issue with this analogy is that unfortunately few CEO’s have the business acumen of the Oracle of Omaha who built a small struggling textile mill into a diversified conglomerate with a market cap of over $200 billion.
The main issue with the Warren Buffett analogy however is that while he doesn’t like paying dividends to Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B) shareholders he does enjoy investing in companies that pay dividends. Some of the top holdings of Berkshire Hathaway pay over $1.5 billion in dividends, not including the preferred dividends from Goldman Sachs (GS), General Electric (GE) and several other firms. In his 2007 letter to shareholders he explained the best type of business to own:
We bought See’s for $25 million when its sales were $30 million and pre-tax earnings were less than $5 million. The capital then required to conduct the business was $8 million. The capital now required to run the business is $40 million. This means we have had to reinvest only $32 million since 1972 to handle the modest physical growth – and somewhat immodest financial growth – of the business. In the meantime pre-tax earnings have totaled $1.35 billion. All of that, except for the $32 million, has been sent to Berkshire. After paying corporate taxes on the profits, we have used the rest to buy other attractive businesses.
As seen above however, few companies can do this for extended periods of time. Most companies keep growing for a while, after which they are bound to generate excess cash flows, which fills their coffers. After a while this extra cash is bound to be misspent, the same way that many individuals in the US recklessly spend their income on things they don’t need. Some examples include Vivendi, which was transformed from a sleepy water utility into a media conglomerate through expensive acquisitions that almost bankrupted the company. Incidentally the water utility operations were spun off in early 2000s as Veolia (VEO) and they have outperformed the media empire they created.
Other examples of companies with extra cash that spent too much on projects that didn’t generate much in excess returns include Microsoft (MSFT), which has been able to dominate any technology for over two decades. The main driver of its earnings growth in the meantime however continue being the Windows operating system. Even tech giant Google (GOOG) was misallocating cash in 2007 when it announced the $30 million Google Space program.
Typical companies that don’t pay dividends besides new companies in existence for less than a decade, include either firms that need to reinvest all of their earnings back into the business in order to maintain their business or companies that are so weak that they cannot afford to pay dividends. The first type will generate returns to shareholders only if someone buys the business at a premium. If they do all the work and all they could show at the end of the year after all the work has been done is no more cash than what was in the coffers at the beginning of the year, then intelligent investors should definitely ignore them. Technology companies generally fall into this category, because of rapid product obsolescence, competition and weak consumer loyalty. While Altavista and Yahoo (YHOO) were popular internet search engines in the late 1990’s, Google (GOOG) was able to overthrown them by offering a better solution to customers. The second type of business that cannot afford to distribute any cash because of its inherent weakness includes such industries such as Airlines or US Automakers.
Just because a company pays dividends, doesn't mean that it cannot grow earnings in the process. Companies like McDonald's (MCD), Wal-Mart (WMT), Procter & Gamble (PG), Altria Group (MO) and Abbott Labs(ABT) are examples of that.
McDonald's Corporation (MCD), together with its subsidiaries, operates as a worldwide foodservice retailer. This dividend aristocrat has raised dividends for 33 consecutive years. Yield: 2.90%(analysis)
Altria Group, Inc. (MO), through its subsidiaries, engages in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, wine, and other tobacco products in the United States and internationally. This dividend champion has rewarded shareholders with higher dividends for 43 consecutive years. Yield: 6.30% (analysis)
Abbott Laboratories (ABT) engages in the discovery, development, manufacture, and sale of health care products worldwide. The board of directors of this member of the S&P Dividend Aristocrats index has approved dividend increases for 38 consecutive years. Yield: 3.40%(analysis)
One issue with dividend stocks is that income earned by corporations is taxed twice. It is taxed first at the corporate level and then it is taxed at the individual shareholder income level once dividends are distributed. As a result of this double taxation some believe that investors are worse off. This being said I am a firm believer that if a company can reinvest all of its earnings in projects that would enable it to increase earnings while maintaining its returns on invested capitals it should not pay a dividend.
Unfortunately few investors realize that the IRS could tax companies on accumulated but undistributed earnings of corporations at its own discretion. The so called Accumulated Earnings Tax is imposed on regular C corporations whose accumulated retained earnings are in excess of $250,000 if improperly retained instead of being distributed as dividends to shareholders. To avoid unreasonable accumulation of earnings there should a specific plan for the use of accumulation. Otherwise the IRS will assess the tax at a flat 15%.
Full Disclosure: Long ABT,MCD,MO,PG,WMT