attitudes toward dividends (i): risk aversion

As a general rule, as people become older and as they become wealthier, they become more risk-averse.

The operative word here is “more.”  Virtually everyone is financially risk-averse.  That is to say, almost all of us want to be assured of some reward before we’re willing to take risk.  (A pedantic note:  the opposite of being risk-averse is to be a risk taker or risk seeker.  That is, someone who is either willing to expose himself to financial risk without any thought to compensation, or,who craves the rush risk brings and is actually willing to pay to experience the possibility of financial loss.  Until recently, you could have said risk seekers were like Cubs or Mets fans.)

The mainstream financial risk question is about the price of risk–that is, how many units of return are necessary for someone to assume one unit of risk.  As we get older/wealthier, that number rises.

war story

At one time, I worked for a man whose family had been wiped out during the Great Depression but who had built a company in the 40 years since bankruptcy that was earning him $20 million a year.  I asked him for $100,000 to fund a new venture for the firm that would likely be earning, say, $500,000 a year within a half-decade.

He said no.  I don’t think it had anything to do with his view of my competence.  For him, the loss of $100,000 was much worse than the potential of a $500,000 annuity that might run for 20 years or more.  That may be an extreme case of risk aversion   …or maybe not.  For many family companies preserving at least the current level of income is way more important than anything else.

For my old boss, a mature company gushing free cash flow and paying increasing dividends would be far more attractive than Facebook, Alphabet or Amazon, even in their infancies.

 

More tomorrow.

why cash dividends?

In its most common form, a dividend is a distribution of a portion of a corporation’s profits to shareholders in cash.

Yesterday, the Financial Times published an article titled “Alarm grows as investors get bulk of listed groups’ profits:  Unusual situation that tends to occur only in periods of widespread economic weakness.”

The thrust of the article is that companies in the large-cap MSCI Global index are now paying out 51% of their profits in dividends.  That’s up from 43% two years ago (when presumably income for everyone not in natural resources was lower).  It’s also higher than the long-run median of 46%.

Suggested but not stated is the idea that these companies are mortgaging their long-term future by skimping on capital investment to satisfy myopic income-oriented investors. The subtitle of the article suggests the high payout ratio may be a harbinger of recession.

Personally, I’m not alarmed.  And I’m not sure the current situation is that unusual.  In fact, my experience is that corporate attitudes toward, and investor preferences about, dividends vary widely over different time periods and in different parts of the world.

That’s what I’ll be writing about over the next few days.

Some preliminaries today:

–dividends are supposed to be paid out of earnings.  If a company has no current or past profits, it can still make a distribution (why it would is a different question–although some fixed income funds do do this). That kind of distribution is called a return of capital.  The main practical difference is that a return of capital isn’t subject to income tax.

–sometimes a stock split is structured as a dividend.  In the US, this typically happens when the split is very small, like 21 for 20, which would be a 5% stock dividend. In most countries, managements doing so as a substitute for a cash dividend and appear to be hoping that shareholders accept this number shuffling instead of money it (a) wants to retain   …or (b) doesn’t have.

–spinoffs of assets are sometimes structured as dividends, as well.

–managements of dividend-paying companies tend to want to at least maintain the current level of recurring dividend payments.  If a company is feeling especially flush in a given year, it may decide to declare an extra one-time dividend payment.  It will label the payment as “special” or “extraordinary,” to make sure shareholders understand this is not a recurring event.

–unlike the case with preferred shares or coupon-bearing debt, management makes no promises to maintain the current level of dividend payments, or even to pay a dividend at all.   Around the world, however, a dividend cut, meaning reduction or elimination of the dividend payout, is regarded as a very bad thing.  It usually provokes a sharp negative reaction in the stock price   …more so outside the US than inside.  That’s because it signals either very poor management planning or a sharp deterioration in a company’s business.  Investors also tend to have very long memories when it comes to dividend reductions.

–in my experience, the best indicator of a possible future dividend cut is that the company has cut the dividend in the past.  The next best is a close analysis of the sources and uses of funds section of the financial statements.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

inflation on the rise?

Regular readers know that I like the economic work done by Jim Paulsen of Wells Capital, the Wells Fargo investment management arm.  His May 1st “Economic and Market Perspective” piece argues that the US has turned the corner on inflation, which will –contrary to consensus beliefs–be on the rise from now on.

His argument:

–the first signs of upward wage pressure in the US are now becoming visible (in developed economies, inflation is all about wages)

–recently, a rising dollar has kept the price of imported goods from rising (in some cases, they’ve been falling) and suppressed demand for US goods abroad.  That’s changing, turning the currency from a deflationary force into in inflationary one

–productivity is low, meaning that companies will have no way of offsetting higher wages other than to raise prices

–in past economic cycles, the Fed has somehow invariably remained too loose for too long.

 

I’m not 100% convinced that Paulsen is correct, and to be clear, he expects only mild inflation, but I’ll add another point to the list:

–although it doesn’t talk much about this any more, the Fed has clearly in mind the lost quarter-century in Japan, where on three separate occasions the government cut off a budding recovery by being too tight too soon.  In other words, there’s little to gain–and a lot to lose–by being aggressive on the money tightening trigger.

 

Suppose Jim is right.  What are the implications for stocks?  This is something we should at least be tossing around in our heads , so we can have a plan in mind for how to adjust our portfolios for a more inflationary environment.

My thoughts:

–inflation is really bad for bonds.  As an asset class, stocks benefit by default.  But bond-like stocks–that is, those with little growth and whose main attraction is their dividend yield–will be hurt by this resemblance.

–if the dollar is at or past its peak, it’s time to look for domestic-oriented stocks in the EU and euro earners in the US (the basic rule here is that we want to have revenues in the strong currency and costs in the weak).

–companies that can raise their prices, firms whose labor costs are a small percentage of the total, and consumer-oriented firms that are able to expand unit volumes without much capital investment should all do well.

–I think that average workers, not the affluent, are the main beneficiaries of a general rise in wages.  So firms that cater to them may be the best performers.

 

 

 

a Fall stock market swoon?

Over the past thirty years, the US stock market has tended to sell off from late September through mid-October, before recovering in November.  That historical pattern has some brokerage strategists predicting a similar outcome for this fall.

Why the annual selloff?

It has to do with the legal structure of mutual funds/ETFs and the fact that virtually all mutual funds and ETFs end their tax year in October.

1.  Mutual funds are a special type of corporation.  They’re exempt from income tax on any profits they may achieve.  In return for this tax benefit, they are required to limit their activities to portfolio investing and to distribute any investment gains as dividends to shareholders (so the IRS can collect income tax from shareholders on the distributions).

2.  All the mutual funds and ETFs I know of end their fiscal years in October.  This gives their accountants time to get the books in order and to make required distributions before the end of the calendar year.

3.  For some reason that escapes me, shareholders seem to want an annual distribution–even though they have to pay tax on it–and regard the payout as a sign of investment success.  Normally management companies target a distribution level at, say, 3% of assets.  (Just about everyone elects to have the distribution automatically reinvested in the fund/ETF, so this is all about symbolism.)

4.  The result of all this is that:

a.  if realized gains in a given year are very large, the fund manager sells positions with losses to reduce the distribution size.

b.  If realized gains are small, the manager sells winners to make the distribution larger.

c.  Because it’s yearend, managers typically take a hard look at their portfolios and sell clunkers they don’t want to take into the following year.

In sum, the approach of the yearend on Halloween triggers a lot of selling, most of it tax-related.

not so much recently

That’s because large-scale panicky selling at the bottom of the market in early 2009 (of positions built up at much higher prices in 2007-07) created mammoth tax losses for most mutual funds/ETFs continue to carry on the books.  At some point, these losses will either be used up as offsets to realized gains, or they’ll expire.

Until then, their presence will prevent funds/STFs from making distributions.  Therefore, all the usual seasonal selling won’t happen.

how do we stand in 2014?

I’m not sure.  My sense, though, is that the fund industry still has plenty of accumulated losses to work off.  As a general rule, no-load funds have bigger accumulated unrealized losses than load funds;  ETFs have more than mutual funds, because of their shorter history.

This would imply that there won’t be an October selloff in 2014.

Even if I’m wrong, the important tactical point to remember is that the selling dries up by October 15 -20.  Buying begins again in the new fical year in November.

 

 

 

 

 

why I don’t like stock buybacks

buyback theory

James Tobin won the Nobel Prize for, among other things, commenting that company managements–who know the true value of their firms better than anyone else–should buy back shares when their stock is trading at less than intrinsic value.  They should also sell new shares when the stock is trading at higher than intrinsic value.  Both actions benefit shareholders and add to the firm’s worth.

True, but not, in my view, a motivator for most actual stock buybacks.

Managements sometimes say, or imply, that share buybacks are a tax-efficient way of “returning” cash to shareholders, since they would have to pay income tax on any dividends received.  I don’t think this has much to do with buybacks, either.  It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, since a majority of shares are held in tax-free or tax-deferred accounts like pension funds and IRAs/401ks.

the real reason

Why buybacks, then?

Years ago I met with the CEO of a small cellphone semiconductor manufacturer.  We had a surprisingly frank discussion of his business plan (the stock went up 20x  before I sold it,  which was an added plus).  He said that his engineers were the heart and soul of his company and that portfolio investors like me were just along for the ride.  He intended to compensate key employees in part by transferring ownership of the company through stock options from outsiders to engineers at the rate of 8% per year!!

Yes, the 8% is pretty extreme. In no time, there would be nothing left for the you and mes.

Still, whether the number is 4% or 1%, the managements of growth companies generally have something like this in mind.  They believe, probably correctly, that they won’t be able to attract/keep the best talent otherwise.

The practical stock option question has two sides:

–how to keep the portfolio investors from becoming outraged at the extent of the ownership transfer and

–how to keep the share count from blowing out as stock options are exercised.  A steadily rising number of shares outstanding will dilute eps growth; more important, it will alert portfolio investors to the fact of their shrinking ownership share.

The solution?   …stock buybacks, in precisely the amount needed to offset stock option exercise.

is there a better way?

What I don’t like is the deception that this involves.

However, would I really prefer to have companies allow share count bloat and have high dividend yields?  What would that do to PE multiples?   …nothing good, and probably something pretty bad.

So, odi et amo, as Ovid said (in a different context).