Friday, October 23, 2009

Is now the time to sell your dividend stocks?

The strong bullish move off of March 2009 lows has lifted many stocks, thus creating large unrealized paper gains for many dividend investors. While prices have enjoyed a steep run-up, dividend yields, which move inversely to prices, have declined in the process. Many dividend investors are now wondering if they should simply lock in their gains in stocks which are not yielding that much relative to others.

As a dividend investor, one of the items in my entry criteria is to require at least a 3% initial yield when purchasing a stock. Back in the first half of 2009, there were plenty of good quality dividend stocks that fit these criteria. Nowadays even some of my favorites such as PepsiCo (PEP) and Aflac (AFL) are yielding a little less than 3%. Now that those holdings are yielding less than my entry yield criteria, the question is whether I should hold on to them, or switch to stocks with higher current yields. If I were to do this, I would instantly increase my dividend income. If I didn’t however, that wouldn’t really hurt my income either.

First, the reason why I won’t do this is because I am a long term investor. I buy stocks and plan to hold on to them for the long run, or until a company cuts dividends. Over time I expect that a dividend grower would deliver a solid yield on cost. In other words if I purchased Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) at $50 in March, my yield on the original investment would have been 3.68%. After the company raised its annual dividend however to $1.96/year, my yield on cost increased to 3.92%. If JNJ raises distributions at 6% annually for the next 12 years, my yield on cost would double to 8%. More often than not however, the current yield on Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) would remain between 2% and 3% over the next decade. That is, if Johnson and Johnson pay a $4 dividend in one decade, and the stock yields 2%, the stock price would be $200. Most dividend yield chasers would be ignoring the stock simply because the yield is too low. At that moment however, my yield on cost would be 8%, and I wouldn’t care as much about the current yield, except when reinvesting distributions.

Therefore it is important to distinguish between yield on cost, and current yield. If you purchase a stock whose dividend payment increases over time, chances are that your yield on cost would be increasing. Thus, even if the current yield drops to 2%, one should not consider selling. Another example in this situation is Aflac (AFL), which could have been purchased around $12 at its lows in March, yielding about 10%. Despite the fact that the stock is up over 300% since that point and yielding 2.4% currently, this investment would still be yielding 10% on cost to the investor who bought at the time.

Second, you have to take into account the dividend yield and dividend growth characteristics in addition to evaluating the sustainability of the dividend. If you purchased Procter & Gamble (PG), at prices between $45 and $50, your yield on cost is somewhere between 3.50% and 3.90%, despite the fact that the stock currently yields 3.10%. The ten year dividend growth rate for this Cincinnati based manufacturer of consumer goods is 10.60%. Using the rule of 72, the company would double your yield on cost in 7 years. In addition to that the dividend payment is adequately covered from current earnings and cash flows per share.
Let’s assume that you decided to sell your Procter & Gamble (PG) stock today for a higher yielding company such as AT & T (T), which currently yields 6.30%. While you would essentially double your dividend income overnight, you would have to note that AT&T (T) has grown its distributions by 5.3% annually over the past decade. In addition to that, the payout ratio of the telecom company is approaching 80%, which puts the sustainability of the distribution in danger. Last but not least, by switching from Procter & Gamble (PG) into AT&T (T) would lead to your portfolio being overweight to the telecommunications sector and underweight the consumer staples sector.

At the end of the day it is important to understand that investing is more art than science. Thus, while a strategy might look good on paper, does not mean that it would stand the tests of the battle. It is also a balancing act between several known and unknown variables, such as dividend yield, dividend growth, dividend payout, diversification and dollar cost averaging. If your portfolio consists mainly of high yielding securities, there is a very high probability that the dividend payouts on your investments is high, which increases the likelihoods for a dividend cut, and the opportunities for income growth are limited. It is important to view stocks as ownership portions of businesses, and thus concentrate on selecting only those which the investor believes to have solid fundamentals over time.

Two such companies include Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Procter & Gamble (PG). Both companies are leaders in their own markets, and possess strong economic moats.

The Procter & Gamble Company engages in the manufacture and sale of consumer goods worldwide. The company operates in three global business units (GBUs): Beauty, Health and Well-Being, and Household Care. The company has raised distributions for 53 years in a row. (analysis)

Johnson & Johnson engages in the research and development, manufacture, and sale of various products in the health care field worldwide. The company has raised distributions for 47 consecutive years. (analysis)

Both companies offer not only great dividend growth potential, but also strong capital gains potential as well for the enterprising long term investor. While investing in the short run is mostly affected by strong emotions such as fear and greed, long term dividend investing is all about evaluating long term business trends and then positioning accordingly.

Full Disclosure: Long AFL, JNJ, PEP, PG and T

Relevant Articles:

- Emotionless Dividend Investing
- Procter & Gamble (PG) Dividend Stock Analysis
- Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) Dividend Stock Analysis
- Should you re-invest your dividends?

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