Monday, March 10, 2014

Why do I use a P/E below 20 for valuation purposes?

Long time readers know that I use a price earnings ratio of 20 as one of the parameters in my set of screening criteria. In addition, anytime I analyze a company, I always end up with a conclusion of whether I find it overvalued or undervalued in terms of P/E relative to the benchmark of 20.

A common question in my mailbox concerns the reasoning behind using this variable, and the reason why I don’t look at historical P/E ranges or industry P/E ranges when looking at companies.

A P/E of 20 implies an earnings yield of 5% by the way. I set this parameter back in 2007- 2008, when yields on treasury bonds were about 5%. If yields on treasury bonds increase above 6 – 7%, I would likely require a P/E of about 15 for screening purposes.

The reality is that I use that P/E of 20 as a way to screen out companies that trade at a higher P/E than 20. I am not willing to pay for a high valuation above 20 times earnings, especially for mature dividend growth companies. However, I do not use this P/E in a vacuum to select companies. Instead I use it as one of the tools to compare individual companies that are valued attractively at the present.

I use this criterion for screening purposes, as a way to narrow down the list of qualified opportunities to a more manageable level. I also use other criterion in my screening, such as requirements for minimum yield (2.50%), 5 and 10 year annual dividend growth (6%/year), and dividend sustainability (payout ratio below 60%). However for the purposes of this exercise, I am not going to go into much detail on those.

I applied those results to the list of dividend champions, and received the following output:

After I narrow down the list of prospect to a more manageable level, then I compare companies listed in the output. I try to determine which one/ones to buy – based on valuation, earnings stability, growth prospects, portfolio weight. I analyze each company on the list for qualitative factors as well, such as moats, competitive advantages, brands, pricing power etc. For me earnings stability and opportunities for future earnings growth are paramount. You cannot simply look at yield or P/E ratios without gaining some comfort on stability of earnings and dividend payments, and prospects for future growth in both.

As you can see, I try to allocate my funds in what I believe to be the best ideas at the time. I do not believe in the strategy of accumulating cash, and waiting for lower prices from there. I try to balance obtaining the most earnings yield, with the highest probability of growth, for every dollar I put to use today. However, I also face the constraint that I can make only 24 – 36 purchases per year, and that I want to have a diversified portfolio of securities.

If you look at the screen, Chevron (CVX) is on the top of the list by valuation. Therefore, if I was just starting out, I would analyse and potentially buy Chevron in the first month, then maybe analyse and buy some Exxon Mobil (XOM) the next, followed by some Helmerich & Payne (HP) in the third month. If I had not analyzed Helmerich & Payne (HP) and Weyco Group (WEYS) before, I would need to add them to my list for further research, before I allocate any capital to them. I have done what I describe in this article for the past 6 years, and it has worked fine for me.

I do not look at P/E ratios for industry and in terms of historical ranges. To understand why, let’s walk through an example where you have two companies, one which typically sells at 8 – 12 times earnings and another which sells at 18 – 24 times earnings. Both grow dividends at 7%/year, and both yield 2.50%. We would also assume that earnings are relatively stable in both, there is an equal history of dividend growth, and both companies have some sort of durable competitive advantage. Company A trades at the top end of its P/E valuation range (P/E of 12), while company B trades at the low end of its valuation range (P/E of 18). If I was just getting started investing, I would choose company A any time over company B. This is because I am getting more earnings yield for each dollar I invest. This also provides the company with certain options such as share buybacks to boost earnings per share. This could be more accretive to shareholders of company A than for those of company B. It doesn't matter that the P/E is at the top of the range for company A, because I am getting more value for my dollars invested.

Of course if I already have exposure to company A, I would then start allocating funds to company B, which is the next best thing to put my money in. I will also do it because I like to be diversified and not keep all my eggs in one basket.

So as you can see, my method of screening provides a very good launching pad for evaluating opportunity cost, and selecting the most optimal investments at the time. It is superior to looking at past P/E ratios and industry P/E ratios, because it focuses on finding value today, relative to the rest of the market opportunities of the day.

To summarize, I use the P/E as one of the tools to narrow down list of prospects to a manageable level, and then help me to choose between dividend stocks. This low P/E, coupled with my qualitative and quantitative analysis of companies, helps me identify and purchase shares in the best bargains at the present moment. I have money to invest every month, so this P/E of 20 helps me avoid overvalued securities, and helps me to find the best bargains in the market at the time I have to allocate my capital.

Full Disclosure: Long CVX, XOM, WMT, MCD, PEP, JNJ, KMB & TGT

Relevant Articles:

Complete List of Articles on Dividend Growth Investor Website
How to read my stock analysis reports
How to choose between dividend stocks?
Evaluating Dividend Growth Stocks – The Missing Ingredient
Look beyond P/E ratios dividend investors


  1. Nice article. Great advice. Everyone should read this article more than once.

  2. When I was in college, the professor in my Economics class told us that we should never buy a stock with a P/E over 10 because it was just too expensive. True story.

  3. Hi Dennis,

    Glad you liked the article.

    Hi Keith,

    I am curious, when did you go to school and take the class? I would never just focus on one indicator alone, that would be dangerous.


  4. DGI, I went to college in the late 1970s. I don't remember what, if any, other criteria our professor had for buying stocks, just that the P/E had to be less than 10. Even at that time, there weren't a lot of stocks to choose from with such low P/Es. Personally, I also look at the PEG ratio; I don't like to buy if the PEG is higher than 2.

  5. Hi Keith,

    I figured you took this class in the end of the 1970s-early 1980s. The P/E on S&P 500 was around 10 between 1975 - 1985

    But the P/E of 10 was probably applicable when interest rates were much higher..

  6. Thanks for answering my question!

    Before when I was reading, it seemed as if the company you were most likely to purchase was the one with the lowest PE, all things considered. Maybe I was misinterpreting.

    Can you clarify: One of the key details in your Analysis posts are the comparison of DG to earnings. A lower PE company (not in all cases), for example utilities, have such valuation b/c their earnings are not expected to grow as fast as the market. Then, is the analysis of earnings vs dividends growth trump PE if it's unfavorable?

  7. Yes, interest rates were very high in the late 1970s - early 1980s. So, I wasn't clear when I wrote that there weren't a lot of stocks to buy with P/Es under 10. There weren't many that interested a poor college student when the banks were paying you to save money. Imagine a bank paying you to save money. LOL

    On a somewhat related note, a friend of mine and his wife bought a boat load of T-bills with a 15% yield. When interest rates came down they sold, made a huge capital gain, and bought a condo in Hawaii. ;)

  8. Hi Matthew,

    If I were just starting out, I would follow the concept described in this article - screen, then analyze each company, then decide which one/ones to buy each month.

    To me, individual stock analysis trumps everything else. You can't just compare XOM and WMT, look at a streak, yield, payout, P/E. You have to analyze them, see which one you think is likely to deliver better growth for the price you can get it, and buy it.

    So to answer your question, I find earnings growth potential to be the more important than dividend growth - thats because EPS growth fuels DPS growth. But I would never overpay for earnings growth either.

  9. Hi DGI,

    Is your P/E ratio of 20 set in stone? For example, if a stock was selling at its 52-week low, yet the P/E ratio was slightly over 20 (say 21 or 22), would you not buy the stock? I'm interested in knowing your perspective on this.


  10. I'm going to jump in and guess that 52-week low is just a distracting number that doesn't matter if it's today, yesterday, or 52-weeks ago. Does it honestly matter *what* the market did at some other time? As dividend investors, is it our interest to "game" and/or time the market?

    The question for every stock purchase is "given my objectives, current position, and the current value and price of the business, is this the best use of my capitol for long term dividend investment?" Previous prices for the stock don't effect current prices, and thus never enter into the equation.

    I would imagine, and this is me going out and guessing, that DGI would only break the 20 P/E rule if he had excess capitol and no better investment to pursue for whatever reason. If his strategy mandated substantive diversification and he'd already concentrated his position in the worth-owning sub 20-P/E companies as much as his strategy allows and holding his position in cash/equivalents is also unacceptable, then perhaps he would pursue the best opportunity at above 20-P/E... but I seriously doubt the 52-week low would enter the equation. Why would it? He isn't looking to sell anytime soon, which is the only time the 52-week low matters.

    Nobody On An Odyssey

  11. Good article DGI- I am curious, if your ultimate purpose have both capital appreciation (reversion to the mean for valuation and/or fundamental growth) and dividend growth, wouldn't screening for Free Cash Flow Yield be better?

    Ultimately you want a company that is increasing it's free cash flow so it can pay increasing dividends from that free cash flow. Also, you can buy when FCF Yield is below historic measurements.

  12. Are you discussing TTM P/E or forward P/E? From your list it looks like you use forward P/E. It's worth noting that analysts earnings estimates are wrong more often than not which introduces the need to put an additional safety factor in when using forward P/E.

    Thanks for the article.

  13. Olysouthpaw24,
    Many people will use a "blended" P/E, which would be some number between the most recent 12 months P/E and forward P/E. I'm pretty sure Chuch Carnavale does this. This would be especially important with some companies where growth is accelerating and the forward P/E is much lower than the past 12 months P/E. You are also right that "forward" P/E can be a "pipe dream" or wishful thinking for some companies, and that is where a blended P/E may offer some (albeit limited) protection from rosy analyst projections.

  14. DGI, my first post on the main site. What source do you use to review historical company data, such as historical financials and historical P/E ratios? I assume you want to see the data going back at least 10 years.

    Also, what factors do you look at to form your analysis of potential earnings growth?


Questions or comments? You can reach out to me at my website address name at gmail dot com.

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