Friday, July 29, 2011

Have Multinational, Dividend-Paying Companies Become the World's Safest Investment?

Investment Policy Committee Notes

Summary Points:
  •  Debt ceiling saga continues to keep markets in flux
  •  Debt Rating agencies forewarn of credit downgrades for the world’s few AAA rated countries
  •  The European Union scrambles to reschedule Greek debt
  • The Municipal bond market somewhat stagnant as investors await Congress’ decision on the debt ceiling
  •  2nd Quarter company earnings continue to outperform

Needless to say, there is a barrage of perceived and real worries in the world today.  Most pressing in our view, however, is the topic of the United States debt ceiling, and the anticipated outcome of Congress’ decision to either raise the limit or let the U.S. default.  The Donaldson Capital Management Investment Policy Committee (“IPC”) discussed at great length what truly constitutes a default. We have read many publications, and watched several news conferences in order to learn of the possible outcomes.

Timothy Geithner, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, seemed to dance around an interview question on the plausibility of the U.S. defaulting on its obligations.  Although he did not confirm that the U.S. would default, he did say that by definition the U.S. could be in a ‘technical default’.   Essentially we understood this to mean that without the debt ceiling being raised, with the current level of Government outlays exceeding tax revenues, certain obligations would not be paid.

This is where it gets a bit fuzzy.  There will be a natural order to things, or rather, a priority of who will get paid first in the hierarchy, but how that order is defined is the real question.  While difficult to determine who would get paid and who wouldn’t, the Government realizes that its creditors are made up of countries and large institutions with a strong investing prowess. Therefore it is very important the U.S. make good on its debt obligations to these creditors because we will have to go back to them for future borrowing needs.

However, should the U.S. fix its deficit issues off the backs of those dependent upon their monthly paychecks such as retirees or the disabled by taking away or reducing these benefits?  Either way you look at this issue, it’s very difficult to determine the best way to solve the problem at hand. 

The markets have responded to the expanding uncertainties with mixed emotions.  They have become more volatile in the past few weeks but have traded in a reasonably narrow range.  What seems to be the issue with the uncertainty is uncertainty itself. 

Another correlating variable to the volatility of the markets is the debt rating agencies’ warnings of decreasing credit ratings for some of the strongest countries in the world.  Standard & Poor’s rating agency, along with Moody’s and Fitch’s have all stated they will remove the U.S's AAA rating should either no deal, or a perceived insignificant deal, be passed.  This trend has extended, however, to other countries such as Germany.  This is rather surprising considering the positive attention the Germans have received for their strong fiscal budget and spending discipline.

This may be an unprecedented time in history to have the world’s ‘riskless’ investment (i.e. U.S. Treasury bonds) take on the risk by being downgraded.  What, then, should the world use as a benchmark for risk premiums, capital cost configurations, and the like?  It is the belief of the IPC that no matter the outcome, the U.S. policymakers will do what they can to prevent default and perhaps safeguard the status quo.

Not only so, but as it pertains to investors, differing investment options are graded on a curve. When surveying the world and all the differing investment securities available (from stocks, to bonds, to cash, to foreign currencies or securities, etc) investors perform a mental accounting to rank various investment options against each another.  While there is the real possibility the U.S. debt rating could be downgraded, generally speaking the U.S. is still one of the safest places in the world to invest one’s money. 

A comparison to the bailout plan offered by the European Union to support Greece shows the situation in the U.S. could be much worse.  Private holders of Greek debt are taking a 21% haircut on their investments, which is causing grumbling among investors.  As we have seen, a rippling effect can occur across the European Union should one country default on its obligations.  We are optimistic, however, to see that a new Greek debt restructuring plan should whittle down the country's debt-to-GDP ratio closer to 100% (a more manageable level). 

The IPC then turned its attention to the municipal bond market and noted that the issuance of new bonds has slowed dramatically.  It would take several more paragraphs to explain why, but Congress’s decision to limit new Treasury bond issuance as we near the federal debt ceiling has had the effect of reducing the number of new municipal bonds coming to market.  Therefore, the municipal bond market has now been, at least temporarily, impacted, by the debt-limit standoff.

That is not good news, but there is some good news about credit quality in the municipal bond market.  A recent analysis of our bond holdings showed significantly more upgrades than downgrades.  In fact, the municipal bond market as a whole has fared very well this year, especially in retrospect to analyst Meredith Whitney's dire prediction.  If you remember, she proclaimed there would be hundreds of billions of dollars worth of defaults in 2011.  So far in 2011, only $750 million have defaulted; a far cry from her forecast.  This compares to the amount defaulted in 2010 and 2009 of $2.5 billion and $4 billion, respectively.

Lastly, the IPC discussed corporate earnings for the 2nd Quarter.  So far in this earnings reporting season, a little over 200 companies within the S&P 500 have reported.  Earnings have continued to outperform in both year-over-year growth,18%, as well as earnings surprises,7.5%. (defined as the difference between actual earnings and analysts’ estimated earnings.)  These big earnings gains have also resulted in sizable dividend hikes.  In our two main dividend investment styles, dividend increases over the last year have averaged nearly 14%, the highest growth rate in many years. 

In the spite of all the news that is causing volatility in the stock market, U.S. companies are still expanding and growing at an impressive rate.

Many questions remain regarding the final outcome of the debt-limit stalemate in Congress.  Because this stalemate involves the heretofore safest investment on earth, U.S. debt securities, the options for a perfectly safe hiding place are very few.  Furthermore, we remain convinced that this stalemate will be broken and when it is the few investments that are doing well right now like gold and Swiss,Canadian, and Australian currencies will fall in price.  In essence to invest in these securities at this time is to bet that the U.S. will not only default but remain in a defaulted condition for an undetermined time.

As we have said on many occasions, it is becoming clear that high-quality, multinational corporations may now be the safest investments in the world.  They have piles of cash, significant free cash flows, modest debt loads, compete in every corner of the world and charge a price for their services dictated by the market and not decree, pay taxes in every country in which they operate, and return a significant portion of their annual earnings to their shareholders in the form of dividends.  Go back through this list of attributes and you will find few similarities with most sovereign debt in the world.

We'll report again next week on how the fiasco in Washington DC is playing out.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dividends Are Rocking and Rolling

Dividends have rocked and rolled over the past five and half years.  The question is where will they be dancing from here?

The chart at the right shows dividends paid by S&P 500 companies on a rolling 12 month basis since December of 2005.

For the first three years of this period, dividends rolled higher, peaking near $31.  Beginning in August of 2008, dividends fell like a rock, a move that more than wiped out the gains since 2005.  Since the early part of 2010, dividends have once again reversed course and are now rolling back toward their old highs.  Can this roll continue, or are there more rocks in our future?

Over the last 12 months, S&P 500 companies have paid roughly $25, still far below the nearly $31 all-time high they recorded at the peak in 2008.  However, the red dashes at the far right of the chart show Bloomberg's quantitative estimate of total dividends paid by year-end 2011.  Bloomberg believes that the current roll will continue.  They estimate total dividends for 2011 will reach $29, not far from the all-time high.  Bloomberg also estimates that the old high will be reached by the end of 2012.

If 2011 total S&P 500 dividends paid do reach the $29 estimate, it would mean that dividends would have grown for the year by nearly 21%.  Many analysts estimated that S&P 500 earnings would likely grow at that rate,  however, almost no analyst we follow made such a bold estimate for dividends.  After all, corporations have been fiercely focusing on free cash flows, and dividend payouts diminish cash.

We believe this dividend revival makes complete sense.  Corporations have produced tremendous free cash flows in recent years.  This build up in cash has three main potential uses: 1. share buy backs, 2. acquisitions, and 3. dividend hikes.  The companies we follow have done a little of all three, but they have hiked dividends at a higher rate of growth than we would have expected.  We believe the reason for this has been the growing recognition by many firms that dividend-paying stocks are enjoying renewed interest among many investors, particularly those near or in retirement. In hiking dividends they are just doing what their shareholders want.  I realize this is a very novel idea -- that a company would do what its shareholders want -- but we believe that is exactly what is happening.  There are some firms that have hiked their dividends two and three times in the last twelve months.  Activity of that kind is not an accident.  They know what they are doing and they have the cash flows to afford it.  We believe this dividend roll will continue.

If dividend hikes have been on a roll and stock prices follow dividends, a theory to which we subscribe, then current stock prices may roll a lot higher.  We would not be surprised to see them back to their old highs seen in 2008.  This won't happen in the next six months, but we can see it occurring by the end of 2012.

There are certainly all kinds of worries to contend with, but having a positive outlook is sometimes the best strategy when everyone seems to be throwing rocks at the market's prospects.