Monday, April 27, 2009

Johnson and Johnson Raises Dividend 6.5%

In recent days, almost everyone was expecting a dividend hike announcement from Johnson and Johnson (JNJ). Predicting an increase wasn't a tough call. JNJ had raised their dividend for 44 years in a row. What was a tough call was the amount of the hike. On April 23, they announced a 6.5% dividend increase. In these days of dividend cuts, I applaud JNJ's hike, but I thought it was a bit light. The estimates ranged from 6% to 9.5%. The consensus was in the 8% range. With earnings over the last twelve months having risen nearly 9.5%, I was hoping for an increase between 8% and 9.5%, say 8.5%. Thus, the increase of 6.5% was at first a bit disappointing. To find reasons why the hike was less than expected is not a tough task. The current administration seems bent on sticking their noses and fingers deeper and deeper into America's economic system. With the administration's talk of big changes to our current health-care reimbursement programs, JNJ may be signaling a new, less optimistic view of their long-term prospects. That notion is also born out by Wall Street analysts' 3-5 year forward earning estimates for JNJ, which are now at 8%. In these days of weak earnings reports, 8% long-term growth sounds exceptional, but in JNJ's case that is far lower than their last 5-year earnings growth rate of 11.5%. Indeed, current estimates project that 2009's earnings will be about flat with 2008. As I think about it, however, I believe JNJ is just being pragmatic. I think they are building in a cushion that will enable them to hike their dividend again in 2009 when earnings growth may be meager. I just can't be too pessimistic about a company that has done as many things right over the last 20 years as has JNJ. Furthermore, is it not remarkable that JNJ is currently selling at about 11 times trailing 12-month earnings. That is about half their 20-year average of 22x. Combine this low PE with a dividend yield of almost 4% and you have one of those old fashioned "value" stocks. Funny, I always thought JNJ was a growth stock. These metrics, however, would suggest that it is now being priced like a value stock. That seems odd especially when we consider it has a strong consumer brand (33% of sales) that is not encumbered by health-care pricing issues. In these days, it is very easy to beat up on any stock, but I have a very strong feeling that investors are underestimating JNJ's broad product line and worldwide clout. We own the stock. Please do not use this information for investment purposes. Please consult your own investment adviser.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Procter and Gamble -- Dividends Talk

Procter and Gamble announced late Tuesday that they were hiking their dividend by 10%. This increase was nearly twice what many analysts were estimating and offers important clues about PG's view of the current economy. Here's the reason: Dividends have been under attack over the last year as a result of the weak economy, but also because of many companies' need to conserve capital. For these reasons and others, the notion has developed that even companies with plenty of free cash flow like PG would use this opportunity to set their dividend growth rates on a lower track. PG's 10% dividend hike blows that idea away. Indeed, it is a message that I believe will be corroborated by many more companies. Companies that are committed to a dividend aren't going to change their ways very much. They will only do so if it is a matter of sound business practices or survival. PG could have raised their dividend by anything between 5% and 7% and most people would have been happy. In my judgment, by hiking the dividend 10%, PG is making a statement about their view of the unfolding economic landscape. In short, they believe the world hasn't changed as much as the headlines might suggest. They must believe their worldwide business is still on a double digit growth track, and that people won't abandon brand name products for cheaper private label offerings. Dividends are the most tangible link between a company and its long-term shareholders. We are going through a very difficult time in some industries, but wise companies will think twice before tampering too much with this link to their most patient and dedicated owners. Thank you Procter and Gamble for showing us your stuff.

We own the stock. This blog is for information purposes only. Please consult your own investment advisor.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Is This The Bottom? Part III

I think it is; I think it is. Maybe if I say it twice it will make it so. On March 20, I asked the "bottom" question for the first time. My reasons for asking were mainly technical in nature, although I said I believed the enormous under girding of the banking system by the Fed and other governmental agencies was starting to have an effect. I asked the "bottom" question again on March 26. This time I explained that my reasons for leaning to the affirmative were not only based on the technical action of stocks, but most importantly on the fundamentals. The last two weeks of March saw four economic releases for February housing data that were all better-than-expected. Good grief surely housing could not be turning, especially when home prices were still falling and defaults were still on the rise. But yes, new housing permits, new home sales, exiting home sales and pending home sales all turned higher in February and beat estimates by between 6% and 22%. I think yesterday's Wells Fargo pre-announcement of better-than-expected earnings validates the February housing data. It was clear from Wells Fargo's earnings pre-announcent that a big increase in mortgage originations was driving their good results. Now for some additional good news. I'm hearing anecdotal reports from realtors that I know around the country that March real estate readings in many of the most troubled areas of the country, such as Florida, California, and Arizona are turning up. In almost all cases the year over sales are up substantially, and the inventory of homes is shrinking. Home prices in all areas are still falling, but unit sales are increasing and walk-through business is growing rapidly. I have said many times before that real estate got us into this mess, and improvements in real estate will need to get us out. Increases in unit sales are good news for real estate and the economy, but we need for real estate prices to stabilize. That would seem to be many months off. However, the Fed's purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities has driven down 30-year mortgage rates to about 4.75%. That is proving to be a boon to refinancings as well as new buyers. My brother in Indianapolis says he has a number of buyers who are ready to buy, but they cannot sell their houses. That may not sound like good news, but it is. Just a few month ago, he said things were completely dead. The fall in mortgage rates is definitely putting more people in the market, and I'm hoping that one of them is interested in one of my brother's clients' homes, so a fortuitous chain reaction can begin. My sister-in-law in Arizona, says she has had more activity in the last few weeks than she has seen in months. It may seem early to call a bottom in the economy with only one month's data and a few anecdotes. Indeed, the good news may later be seen as false hope, but when you combine good data and anecdotes with the fact that stocks have staged a bona fide technical rally, the turn around appears to be sprouting legs.