Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is The Economy Slowing Down? Not According to Dividends...

In our most recent blog, we indicated that corporate America’s dividend actions during this time of uncertain global growth will be among the best indicators of the true U.S. and global economic outlook.

Most investors don’t pay too much attention to a company’s dividend policy.  To Wall Street, dividends are just a product of earnings. They don’t mind the dividend payments they get each quarter, but they aren’t really focused on dividends.  Wall Street spends more time chasing earnings predictions and short-term price appreciation.

Despite the recent increase in popularity of dividend investing for income, most people still miss the most important point of all: the dividend is directly linked to the true health of the underlying business and the management’s expectations for the next 12 months and beyond.

Why is this?  For two main reasons:

  1. If you are the CEO of a company and you see a slowdown in future sales and earnings growth, you’re probably not too excited about more cash leaving the company.  Rather than increasing your cash dividend by 10% again this year, you might opt to hold some cash back in reserves and raise the dividend by, say, 5% instead.

  2. Dividends can’t be faked.  Not even the most creative accountant in the world can generate real cash.  Earnings numbers can be misleading, especially at significant turns in the market. Dividends, on the other hand, cannot be faked.  If a company falls into real trouble, it won’t be long before they have to conserve cash and cut their dividend (or at least stop growing it).

We believe that by focusing on dividend history and dividend growth, we can learn a great deal more about a company’s true future prospects.  We’ve seen it time and time again - the companies that slow or cut their dividends have dramatically underperformed the rest of the stock market over the next 12-24 months.

In addition to our numerous valuation models, we have a new model that we’ve built that uses data that is unavailable to the vast majority of investors.  In fact, we might be one of the only investment firms in the U.S. that (a) has this data available and (b) pays any attention to it.

In our view, this tool will be a powerful predictor of when a company starts to take a turn for the worse (or become optimistic about their future).  With this tool, we will be one of the first to be flagged about a company’s dividend behavior and be able to quickly make a decision based upon what we see - well in advance of the rest of the market.

We now have the ability to track not only the dividend announcements on a day-by-day basis, but what Wall Street and Bloomberg were estimating that the most recent dividend action would be.  Based upon statistical backtesting, these dividend estimates have an 88% accuracy rating.  Below is a summary of what the dividend tracker is currently telling us:

Using this tool, we will be able to see:

  1. What the companies believe economic growth will look like.  Are companies starting to slow their dividends as a whole?  Or accelerate them?  The median dividend increase for companies who have announced a dividend increase over the past 3 months is 12.5%.  That is even higher than the year-to-date number of 11%.  Based upon this number, companies are actually accelerating their dividends at a faster pace than they were earlier in the year.

    Perhaps the most encouraging news of all is that over the past 2 weeks, when the stock market was concerned about global growth, dividend announcements were actually a positive surprise of 2.1%.

  2. Are companies expecting to perform better or worse than expected?  By comparing actual dividend announcements vs. dividend growth expectations, we will be able to see red flags on the day they arise.  Of the companies who made announcements, 35 beat expectations while 9 missed.  If any of our companies were among the misses, we would probably give them a call to see what was going on.

  3. Have there been any companies that were supposed to raise their dividend that did not?  In our mind, this is the worst sin a company can commit.  Unless there is a good reason for it (like better investment in projects or a special dividend upcoming), a dividend cut is a bad sign for the future.  Over the last 3 months, there were 67 companies expected to raise their dividends. Every single one of them raised the dividend.  No cuts.  No flat lines.  On average, those companies beat expectations by 1.7% overall. That’s a very good sign.

So far, there is absolutely no evidence that U.S. or multinational companies are pulling back on their dividend increases.  That is very good news in the face of bad headlines across the world.  Companies are still very confident in their futures.  Despite the near “correction” (10% down) from top to bottom, dividends and dividend growth is still intact.  Until that changes, we believe the outlook for the companies in our portfolios is still very good.