Monday, January 6, 2014

Should you sell after yield drops below minimum yield requirement?

The year 2013 has been characterized by stock prices hitting all-time highs throughout the year. As a result, many dividend investors hold shares of quality companies where rising prices have pushed yields below their minimum yield criteria. The question on the minds of most investors is whether it would make sense to sell these companies, and purchase shares of other quality dividend stocks that have higher yields.

Let’s walk through the example of selling a company that grows dividends at a high rate, but currently yields 2%. That could be Becton Dickinson (BDX) or Colgate Palmolive (CL). For the sake of walking through the example, let’s assume that the funds will be invested in Consolidated Edison (ED), which is a higher yielding electric utility.

When a dividend investor sells their shares at a gain, they have to pay taxes on the profit. Depending on the length of time the shares were held for, the gain could be taxed as ordinary income or at more preferential capital gains taxes. Either way, when you sell appreciated stock and pay taxes, you are left with a lower amount of capital to reinvest.

The other factor to take into account is not only the current yield, but realistic growth projections as well. If you sell a perfectly good quality company that you are well familiar with, simply because current yields are a little low, and you purchase shares in a company which might or might not perform as well as the first company, you just create reinvestment risk.

If you sell Becton Dickinson (BDX) that yields 2%, and buy Consolidated Edison (ED) that yields twice as much, you double your current yield and dividend income. However, you will be missing out on future dividend growth, and thus your dividend income might lose purchasing power over time. Over the past five years, Becton Dickinson has grown dividends by 13.50%/year, while Con Edison has boosted them by about 1%/annum. If Becton Dickinson increases dividends by 10%/year for the next 14 years however, a $1000 investment in the stock today could generate $80 in annual dividend income. With Con Edison, a $1000 investment today will likely generate less than $50 in annual dividend income.  The caveat is that future growth is uncertain however, but so is the sustainability of high current yields.

The next factor you have to take into account is your investment horizon. Your investment timeframe should be 20-30 years. Even if you are 60-70 years old today, you might still have to plan for a 20-30 years of retirement. You don’t want to chase yields today by buying stocks solely based off yield. These might not maintain purchasing power or might offer a higher risk of a dividend cut or freeze. This would downgrade your standard of living in the last part of your retirement, when you are less likely to be able to cover the shortfall by finding and holding a job.

Even if you sold Becton Dickinson and bought something else like Chevron (CVX), you are still taking a reinvestment risk. The risk is that in 10-15 years, the amount of dividends that Becton Dickinson’s will pay will be higher than the dividends that Chevron will pay. This could happen if Becton Dickinson increases dividends faster than Chevron during that time period. Further, if oil prices fall in 5 years, Chevron might not even increase dividends at all.

Your goal is to avoid situations where you are essentially compounding mistakes. When all is set and done in 20 years, do you think you would be better off doing nothing or selling and buying something else? If you sold a perfectly good dividend grower, that grew earnings and dividends like clockwork, you paid a tax on gains. This provided you with less money to invest than in the first place. You then purchased shares in a company where you don’t know if the dividend income from this position would be higher or lower than the dividend income from the original position in 20 – 30 years.

The next factor to think about is that replacing appreciated shares simply because the yield is low, for a higher yielding security, should take into account past and projected growth in earnings and dividends. An investor should look for growth at reasonable prices, and should not focus solely on the dividend income at all costs, while ignoring capital gains. This is because a company that cannot grow earnings and dividends today, will likely be unable to grow share prices over time. This is important, because your capital is losing purchasing power over time. In contrast, a company like Becton Dickinson has a growth kick that can result in growing earnings and dividends, which could eventually translate into higher prices. Most equities share a portion of earnings with shareholders in the form of dividends, and then reinvest the rest, in order to grow and maintain the business. A company like Con Edison, which pays out a very high portion of income to shareholders will be unable to grow quickly enough.  As a result, its earnings power might not translate into growth in dividends and stock prices, that can maintain purchasing power of your income and capital.

The nest factor is that chasing yield for sake of yield is a very very dangerous thing. Most investors who start investing for dividends always seem to be attracted to the highest yielding securities out there. This is a mistake, because they are usually not taking into consideration the sustainability of the dividend payment. Most of these investors do not do a very good homework in understanding the business model of a high yielding company, and are focusing only on the high yield aspect of it. What good is a 16% annual dividend yield, if the dividend payment is cut by 80 or 90% in the next year? You would have been better off with a company yielding 2 – 3% in the first place, that has the capability and desire grows dividends over time. The issue with selling an appreciated company that still has potential, for a higher yielding one, is a slippery slope in yield chasing. Once you sell start selling the lowest yielding components of your stock portfolio, without accounting for such factors as sustainability, growth, and understanding of the business, you are becoming essentially a yield chasing investor. In reality, yield should be the last factor in your fundamental analysis.

The last factor on selling is mostly a blend between my personal experiences as a dividend investor and academic studies on the performance of individual investors. According to academic studies, individual investors routinely underperform their benchmarks by as much as 9% per year. This is caused by frequent trading in their portfolios. Based on my own experiences, I can vouch to these findings 100%. When I look at some of the sales I have done, most of them have been pretty disastrous. I have essentially managed to sell a stake in a company that was growing well, and might have looked overvalued relative to another company.

However, after a few years, I calculate that I would have been better off simply holding on to the original security, without the hassle of extra taxes, paperwork, commissions and strains on my already filled schedule. When I sell I am usually worse off. I have realized that I would have been better off just doing nothing, and not tinkering with my portfolio. The point is when you reach out for yield you are sacrificing growth potential and altering the risk profile of your portfolio. You should be aware of that, and be ok to accept lower growth and capital gains that could bring more dividend dollars in the future, for the higher immediate dividend income that will produce less in future dividends and capital gains.

All of this doesn’t mean you should never sell a stock. If it is really overvalued, cuts dividends, or if something material changes, you might be better off selling and going someplace else. However, you need to think about some of the factors explained in this article, in your decision making process on selling.

The urge to do something is the thing that will cost you in the long run. If fundamentals are fine, there is decent EPS growth, DPS growth and you still expect it to continue, your job is to sit tight on investment and let the company do the compounding for you. Sitting is the toughest part of investing, especially in an era where you are bombarded with information on investments all the time. Sitting on an investment, and holding for the long term, might after all be the best strategy for ordinary investors.

Full Disclosure: Long BDX, CL, ED, CVX

Relevant Articles:

Why would I not sell dividend stocks even after a 1000% gain?
Replacing dividend stocks sold
Why I am replacing ConEdison (ED) with ONEOK Partners
Active Dividend Growth Investing
When to sell my dividend stocks?


  1. Rather than worry over current yield, I pay attention to the Year over Year change in my income from a given stock. When I track my stocks, I not only record each dividend payment in a spreadsheet, but I also computer the quarterly increase (I automatically reinvest my dividends in additional shares) and the yearly increase.

    While I have some stocks that are now getting close to a 2% yield due to price appreciation, all of my stocks' dividend incomes have increased by at least 9% year over year with the overall average being 12.1% for all of the stocks I have held for 5+ quarters. As long as the income continues to increase at more than 7% (chosen as it is more than double the rate of inflation most years) I am comfortable continuing to hold the shares. If there are signs that a stock may freeze/cut the dividend or if the rate of increase dips below 7% year over year, I will probably look at cashing out the position and redeploy my capital someplace better.

    1. To Some Guy - What are some of your favorite stocks that are increasing dividends at the rate you mentioned (7 to 9%) consistently? I've yet to learn how to find that information - which companies increase dividends by which % per year and have done so consistently. Thanks for your input!

  2. Share price doesn't impact yield on cost which is what you should be worried about for selling an existing holding.

    1. Exactly! Yield on cost and dividend growth are what matters. If your company's share price increases dramatically faster than the dividends and the security's current yield is 2% but your initial yield on cost was 3.5% you are still getting 3.5%+dividend increases on your original money.

      Current yield only applies to new purchases. I actually track my yield on cost as one of my most important factors because I can control it and because I know if I hit my yield on cost goal I will reach my annual dividend income goal which will put me on track to meet my retirement timeline goal.

  3. I can also attest to the fact that selling is the wrong thing to do more often than not. I will also admit to selling some electric utilities in 2013 and buying growing dividend companies because of your website. ;) Thank you!

  4. Hi DGI, finding and reading your blog years ago gave me the information and confidence needed to manage and continually invest in my portfolio. Thank you for sharing your journey!
    It also important to calculate your personal yield based on your cost basis vs focusing on the current yield.
    Example: Walgreen's current yield is 2.2%. My personal yield based on my cost basis including DRIP, is 4.1%.

  5. I only sell when the dividend growth looks like it is going to start becoming meager (Sysco), frozen or cut. For instance, Intel hasn't raised their dividend for the past six quarters. I might be inclined to sell it if they don't raise the dividend next quarter. But honestly, it's my worst performing stock, and my worst stock has only "broke even" so far.

  6. I agree that we should not sell just because the yield has dropped below your target but in the case below:

    If Becton Dickinson increases dividends by 10%/year for the next 14 years however, a $1000 investment in the stock today could generate $80 in annual dividend income. With Con Edison, a $1000 investment today will likely generate less than $50 in annual dividend income. The caveat is that future growth is uncertain however, but so is the sustainability of high current yields.

    To compare the 2 stock you should include the reinvestment of the part of the dividend that is higher than the other stock.

    For example if I want to compare stocks, stock X with no growth but a 10% dividend and stock Y with 5% annual growth and a 5% dividend I should assume that the extra 5% dividend minus taxes from stock X should be put into buying more shares.

  7. DGI - Over the few years it is more likely that interest rates and inflaction will increase rather than decrease. What are your thoughts on changing the your 2.5% yield thershold as these rates change?

    Thanks for keeping up with the blog. There are many of us that appreciate the effort expend to provide us with things to think about.


  8. This presents the best use of YOC. It will help you keep an eye on the long view.

  9. I'm another proponent for watching yield on cost (YOC) in combination with fundamentals mainly dividend cuts.

  10. To DGI:

    I don't think the article is "muddled" per se. What I think some are responding to is that there is no reason given for considering selling in the first place, and they can't conceive of why you would do so since the rising share price doesn't cause the yield on cost to go down. I had a similar reaction as they did when I first read the article because I couldn't initially conceive of why you would think about doing this.

    After I gave it some thought, I guess it is a question of whether the additional value from unrealized capital gains can be put to better use by realizing the gain and putting it into another stock with a higher *current* yield. For example, if I purchase 1 share of stock A at $1000 at a 4% yield, I would get $40 in income. If the value went to $2000 and I did nothing, I would still only get $40, meaning $2000 of *value* was only earning me 2%. But if I realized the gain, and invested the $2000 into stock B *currently* yielding 4%, I would get $80 in income.

    That said, I generally agree it makes more sense to hold onto the original purchase unless something changes the fundamentals.

  11. Muddled or not, the text gives some very good inputs and thoughts for us to think about when to sell a stock.

    It seems many readers are taking yield on cost as the most important factor. I disagree with that. The past is the past, important is the yield going forward. In that sense, keeping a stock (i.e. deciding not to sell it) is mentally like purchasing a stock now. Would you buy a stock you have in your portfolio with new money? If not, then it might be a stock to sell, irrespective of YOC. Of course, in the case of holding a stock, the bar is higher than for new purchases, for all the reasons that you lay out in the 'muddled' text..

  12. I agree the yield requirements are an important consideration when thinking about buy/sell opportunities. Something I'm trying to do in my own portfolio is look for companies that are currently paying at a slightly too-high yield, but that I believe will grow earning to the point that the yield will come down to a very attractive and sustainable level.
    Probably more important to me is a stock showing increased payouts on an absolute basis. I'll pay attention to yield %, etc. but not exclusively.

  13. I'm a little disturbed to see so many people using yield on cost as part of the selling decision making process. Yield on Cost should not be used when making a selling decision. Yield on Cost is the amount of money you are earning on the original investment you made. Since that time your circumstances have changed (for example the value has gone up).
    Yield on Cost is a good measure of past success with dividend growth. It doesn't indicate the current situation though. Currently, it is best to compare your current yield (amount of money you will receive based on current value) versus the current yield of another company (amount you would receive if you put that money into a separate company.
    Although, as DGI stated, chasing yield is no way to make a winning investment plan.


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