Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Are Dividend-Paying Stocks Becoming Better Than Bonds?

Speculators are throwing stocks around like dead fish, but even a simple analysis of companies in the S&P 500 shows that they are very much alive.  There are now 214 companies in the S&P 500 that have a dividend yield higher than the 2.10% yield of a 10-year US Treasury bond. 

These 214 companies have an average current dividend yield of 3.70%.  Importantly, as an indicator of their vitality, these companies have increased their dividends by an average of 8.20% over the last 12 months. This level of dividend hikes is eye-popping when considering that the US economy grew at only 1.60% during this time.

For the S&P 500 as a whole, the current dividend yield is 2.25%, also higher than the 10-year Treasury bond.  But when including the additional 286 companies whose yield is lower than the 10-year Treasury bond yield, or pay no dividend at all, the average 12-month dividend growth has been just over 14.0%.  During the same time, earnings for the S&P 500 grew by close to 12%.  That means that companies actually grew their dividends modestly faster than their earnings were growing.  Would dead fish companies do that?  Absolutely not.  A company would only hike its dividend at a faster rate than its earnings if it was completely confident that it would not need the money later.

So we have another one of those conundrums here.  The average company in the US is reasonably optimistic about its future.  We would add that the Wall Street analysts agree.  Last Friday, the analysts raised 2012 earnings to new all-time highs.  Thus, at the very time when the speculators were beginning to sling dead fish like there was no tomorrow, the analysts were pushing up 2011 and 2012 earnings. The actions of the analysts are vitally important in solving the conundrum:  It was almost exactly a year ago when the analysts also went against  the fish tossers by continuing to hike earnings for 2010 and 2011 even though stocks were selling off.  We all know now that they were right.  Earnings and dividend increases kept on rolling in and stock prices exploded.

We are not completely discounting the action of the fish tossers.  There certainly is a foul smelling odor coming from Washington these days, and the puny growth of the US economy stinks; but we believe speculators are missing the bigger picture.  World-wide economic growth is projected to be near 3.5% for 2011.  That rather spritely figure includes the smelly slow grow rates in the US and Europe.  The truth is the developing world is still showing solid growth, and, of equal importance, the developing world is a lot bigger than most investors understand.

In previous blogs we have extolled the concept of bond-like stocks.  Our view is for many companies the current dividend payments are very safe; indeed, we believe they will grow at solid rates over the next few years.  Mathematically, a stock yielding 3.7%, with its dividend growing at 7%-8% should clobber the current 2.10% return on a 10-year US Treasury bond.  It is not a guarantee, . . . but perhaps in light of recent events, we might say that questions have been raised about the credit quality of US Treasury bonds, as well.