Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dividend Investors: Stay The Course

The first week of this year has been brutal for many investors. It is during times like these that you see who really is a long-term investor, and who is just a pretender. When you are a long-term buy and hold investor, you stand the best chances to take maximum advantage of the power of compounding, and end up with the probability for the highest dividend income and capital gains. These are the times where having a disciplined approach to investing pays off. These are the times when the ability to allocate capital to use in quality dividend stocks would seem stupid in the short-term, but potentially really brilliant 10 – 20 years down the road. When stock prices fall, there is an urge in the investor to protect their nest eggs from further price impairment.

This is a dangerous situation to be in because:

1) Noone knows in advance today when this correction is going to run out of steam or what its ultimate severity will be. So when you act on short-term noise, you are actually shooting yourself and those who will depend on you in the foot.

2) Therefore, if you act based on short-term price fluctuations, you are speculating and have essentially thrown out your edge of being a long-term investor. It is extremely difficult to win in investing as a short-term speculator – you will be in an out of stocks and paying taxes and commissions through the nose. Your main edge in the stock market lies in the ability to hold on to your stocks through thick and thin for decades, and cashing in those growing dividend checks ( or reinvesting them in the accumulation phase)

3) If you are in the accumulation phase, you should be praying for lower prices, because you are buying shares to provide for you in 20 – 30 years. A 200 point decline on the S&P 500 decline will likely look just like a blip on the charts 20 – 30 years from now. If you don’t believe me, check the 1987 crash. A lower entry price results in more future dividend income for you.

4) If you are in the retirement phase, you already have a plan to live off your assets. You are likely spending those dividends, and hopefully those dividends are coming from a diversified portfolio of dividend growth stocks. You are likely getting social security and possibly a pension. As long as there is some margin of safety in financial independence, and the dividend portfolio mostly consists of quality blue chips, the investor should be just cashing in their dividend checks and enjoy the fruits of their lifetime of labor.

I know that seeing unrealized capital losses hurts. However, the important thing is to just stick to your plan and stay the course. This is why I have chosen to be a dividend growth investor. When the stock market is going up, everyone is a total return investor and chases hot growth stocks and talks about how much capital gains they have made.

However, when the stock market starts going down in price, those capital gains could quickly turn into losses. Imagine having to sell chunks of your portfolio for living expenses when the stock market is going lower. You will eat your principal quickly, and increase your chances of panicking and doing the wrong thing of selling everything out. When your dividends cover your living expenses however, it is much easier to ignore those stock price fluctuations. As long as those dividends are coming from a diversified portfolio of quality blue chip stocks that are dependable, the investor has nothing to worry about. In fact, receiving cash dividends when the stock prices are going down is very reassuring, and provides the investor with positive reinforcement to just stay the course.

There is a reason why stocks have done much better than bonds in the long-run – they are riskier. With stocks, there is always the chance that there will be violent fluctuations in the price. You can have steep downturns, which can have many weak hands scrambling for the exits. When stock prices go down, many investors assume that something is wrong, they panic and sell. They forget that your upside potential in terms of dividends and capital gains is virtually unlimited. Some companies you own will ultimately cut dividends and sell at levels that were lower than what you paid for. Other companies in your portfolio will do well enough in the long term that will more than compensate for the failures you have experienced.

The issue with stocks of course is that the amount and timing of future capital gains is largely unknown in advance. This is why people panic when prices start going down – they project the recent past onto the future indefinitely. They forget that stocks are not just some pieces of paper or blips on a computer screen, but real businesses that sell real goods and services to consumers who are willing to exchange the fruits of their labor for those goods and services. Over time, those businesses as group will likely learn ways to sell more, charge more, earn more and reward their shareholders. No matter the turbulence we will experience in the US and Global stock markets and economies in the short-run, I believe that things will be better for all of us ten years from now. And as investors, we invest for the long term, not for the next 5 years or 5 months.

With bonds, you get limited upside mostly in terms of the interest payment you receive, and then hopefully a guaranteed return on investment after a set period of time. In my case, the only bonds I am interested in owning directly are Certificates of Deposit, Treasury Bonds and US Agency Bonds. This is the safety portion of my portfolio, which could ultimately account for somewhere between 10% - 15% of my portfolio by the end of the decade. The issue of course is that this portion of the portfolio will mostly keep up with inflation, at best since expected returns are low in the current interest rate environment. So while a portfolio of bank CD’s will not be quoted every day, providing an illusion that the money is safe, it is difficult to live off the small yields we see today. If inflation returns to its normal course of 3%/year, those bank CD’s will likely be unable to keep up purchasing power.

Holding on to stocks pays in the long term better than holding bonds precisely due to their “riskier” nature. If you stay the course of regularly adding money to your accounts, you will be able to buy more shares of quality companies at a discount. After the dust settles, you will be ending up with more valuable pieces of real businesses than before. It intuitively makes sense that if one share of McDonald’s will sell for $1,000 in 20 years, you will be better off buying the company at $80/share as opposed to $120/share. It also intuitively makes sense that if you reinvest your dividends when prices are low, you will end up with more shares and more dividend income over time.

Again, in order to benefit from all of this, you need to stay the course. This means saving money every month, putting money to work regularly, and not getting scared away. Perhaps if you are concerned about prices and you are in the accumulation phase, it may make sense to just start reinvesting dividends automatically. Or alternatively, it may make sense to automatically invest a portion of your paycheck through your 401 (k).

Full Disclosure: Long MCD

Relevant Articles:

Successful Dividend Investing Requires Patience
Fixed Income for dividend investors
Dividend income is more stable than capital gains
How to think like a long term dividend investor
Long Term Dividend Growth Investing

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