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When to break your rules

As a dividend growth investor, my strategy is picking the right stocks that provide a decent balance between dividend yield and distribution growth. Thus I have maintained a rigid requirement for a 3% initial yield before investing in a dividend growth company’s securities.
Most dividend investors look for yield when purchasing income securities. Most dividend growth investors purchase securities so that they could enjoy a rising stream of dividend payments over time. Thus, maintaining a proper balance could be a challenge that could make or break your portfolio.

I realize that using a strict yield criteria I could miss out on potential dividend growth stories such as Wal-Mart (WMT) for example. Wal-Mart has never yielded 3% since it went public in the 1970s. The 29.1% annual dividend growth since 1975 has been truly spectacular however. This means that Wal-Mart’s dividend has doubled every 2.5 years for 34 consecutive years. Wal-Mart has delivered a 23.40% dividend growth since 1985 and a 20.20% dividend growth since 1995. Check my analysis of Wal-Mart.

My rationale behind selecting a minimum yield is to provide me with an adequate margin of safety should the stock stop raising dividends and should the stock price fall or remain flat for a large period of time. In the case of Wal-Mart, the stock has been trading in a range over the past decade. Back in 1999 the stock fluctuated between $70.25 and $38.68 and closed at $69.12. The stock wasn’t yielding much back then – about 0.30%. Even if the dividend were doubling every 2.5 years, it would take a retiree almost 13 years in order to reach a yield on cost of 10%. At the current dividend rate, the stock is actually yielding 1.60% on cost, assuming that you purchased it on the last day of 1999. The actual dividend growth over the past decade comes down to 20.80% per annum, which translates into the dividend payment actually doubling every three and a half years.

Now the down side to my having a strict initial yield requirement for entry is that I would miss out on some huge gains, which could lead to early financial freedom. If one had purchased Wal-Mart stock at the end of 1984, the tenth year in a row in which it increased its dividends, their entry price would have been $1.18 (adjusted for five stock splits) and their initial yield would have been only 0.55% at the time. Fast-forward 25 years and the yield on cost comes out to almost 100%.

Many dividend growth investors tend to project past dividend growth rates into infinity, which seems unsustainable to me. If a company with $1 billion in profits enjoyed a 15% annual growth forever, it would double its net income almost every five years. In reality, as the companies grow larger they would find less opportunities that could sustainably earn them higher incremental returns on investment. For example, with a company like McDonald’s (MCD) people could only eat so much burgers and fries. After a company hits a plateau, EPS growth could largely be sustained by increasing efficiencies, raising prices, repurchasing shares or buying other competitors.

This analysis is not meant to be used as a weapon against Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, which are fine companies. It just goes to show that once shouldn’t solely rely on past data in their investment decisions. Furthermore, projecting past data into the future, without adding a what if analysis of your common sense could prove costly in the long run. In addition, purchasing stocks solely for the dividend growth is as dangerous as chasing high yielding stocks blindly.

As far as my strategy is concerned, I am considering lowering the entry yield criteria to 2% for stocks, which appear to have a sustainable above average dividend growth ahead of them. My target allocation for such stocks would be half of what I would normally allocate to such dividend growth champions such as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) or Procter & Gamble (PG) however.

Full Disclosure: Long JNJ, MCD, PG and WMT

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