Dividend Stocks are Not Popular

Buy low, sell high. Be greedy when others are fearful, blah blah blah…

We all know the slogans. I’m not here to preach to you the importance of avoiding any “hot stocks” or ipo’s – what I am here to tell you is that contrary to what others may be saying, dividend stocks are not that popular.

The argument goes like this: The recession hit, and investors fled to the safety, security, and reliable income stream of dividend paying stocks. In doing so, the price has been driven up, and the higher prices of today will erode the gains of tomorrow. But looking at the facts, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

First, let’s take a look at the underlying causes of stock price movement, and why the overall cost of today’s market is not always a great predictor of future gains.

Fundamental Factors
These are the attributes most dividend investors examine. In this category, we can put earnings, revenues, growth, dividend payout ratio, etc. Found on income statements and balance sheets, these numbers represent the financial health of the company, and provide a reasonable framework for what to expect in the near future.

Technical Factors
Technical analysts are looking at stocks purely from a patterned stand point, and trying to predict future movements from past events. Here is where we can place chart and volume patterns, moving averages, and resistance levels. Like in other aspects of life, humans tend to follow predictable patterns, and technical analysts try to find these patterns, then profit off of them.

Economic Factors
In here we can place inflation (or inflation worries), debt ceilings, unemployment, and the latest crops report. The stock market can be extremely reactive to this data, sometimes making moves on nothing more than a new jobs report, or a debt downgrade. Economic factors can oftentimes merge both real data and “confidence”, producing extreme effects when already low confidence is struck with more bad news.

At any given moment, all three of these factors, to varying degrees of intensity, are playing out in the market. The real problem with predicting how a market is priced today, and how stocks will do in the future, is that this is only provable in hindsight.

You’ve Missed the Boat
Looking at historical data from Robert Shiller of Yale, we can see that the cyclically adjusted p/e of the market in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s stayed pretty much below 10. Then, as the decade wore on, the cape (cyclically adjusted price to earnings) ratio gradually grew, climbing into the teens and eventually into the 20′s by the early 1990′s.

If you had decided in the mid-1980′s that any p/e above 10 was “to expensive” based on historical standards, well, you would still be priced out of the market (the cape p/e hasn’t dipped below 10 since the early 1980′s). Looking back, would it have been a smart move to stay out of the market for the past 30 years? Doubtful.

What I’m saying here is a basic premise of the stock market – past performance is no guarantee of future results. I can’t say that a market p/e of 20 is a sell or a buy, because it could be either. But I can say that arguing current prices are too high is only provable after the fact.

There is a very distinct possibility that with more investors, more money, and more access to the stock market, we will never again hit a p/e of 10 – maybe 20 is the new 10. Or maybe we are headed to an inevitable crash, and the cape p/e will drop to 4 (Great Depression era levels). Either way, what’s important is that no one knows for sure, so waiting for some historically low p/e could you leave on the sidelines for years.

So we can throw out the “dividend stocks are overpriced” argument, because we really don’t know (also keep in mind there are various factors that determine return, in addition to market price – are you being taxed on dividends? What fees are you paying? Did you sell at the market peak?) But putting those aside, let’s look at the popularity argument.

Popularity is for High Schoolers
This argument states that, with the explosion of dividend articles, bloggers, and websites, the strategy is becoming to popular, and anything popular drives up prices and curtails any future gains. Well, not so fast.

There is one simple, and easy way to prove this idea is flawed – if dividend stocks were becoming very popular, and prices were rising, yields would be falling. But they’re not. The opposite is in fact true, and yields are rising, sometimes to historically high levels (I’m looking at you Walmart). But guess what yields are falling? That’s right, US Treasurys.

In fact, if we look at historical records, today’s yields are higher than they have been in the past 15 years (though this whole time was low by historical standards). So what the data is telling us is that investors are fleeing stocks in general, not moving money from one type of stock into dividend paying stocks.

Put Me In Coach
I don’t have an definitive answer for any of these questions, for I am only a lowly dividend blogger, and my ability to predict future stock movements are poor, at best. But I do know that predicting the future is hard, and I’d rather be in the game than shouting from the sidelines.

11 Responses to “Dividend Stocks are Not Popular”

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  1. MoneyCone says:

    I think we shouldn’t paint all dividend paying stocks with the same brush. Some are overpriced, some are fairly priced and some are trading at a discount (pharma stocks anyone?)

    Realizing this could lead to some very successful trades.

    Those who stayed out of the market during the lost decade probably made more than those who remained invested.

  2. Nice post! Putting this one in my weekly roundup for sure.

    The way I see it, being an owner in the market is much better sitting around and waiting to see what happens and trying to figure it out and it swirls around you.

    Own 15-20 good companies, never sell them unless they stop paying dividends, and forget about everything else. Wake up in 20+ years and you have a small fortune through the magic of compounding and reinvested dividends.

    That’s my recipe and until someone can prove to me this won’t work, I’m using it :)

  3. I’m finding varied valuations in the market. Utilities in general seem overvalued. REITs seemed very overvalued but were brought down a bit recently. Large cap tech, insurance, health care, MLPs, seem rather attractively valued.

    I prefer using fairly objective values of valuation measurement. If a 20 P/E is the new normal, then unless growth is at a new height, then returns would likely be lower, and there may be other places to invest. Sometimes it may be worth waiting in other asset classes if there aren’t values to be found. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s one of those times, currently.

  4. To respond to some comments, I know that the article made many generalizations about the cost of dividend stocks. Of course, the list of dividend paying stocks is long, and no doubt some are overvalued, others fairly valued, and still others undervalued.

    This article took a more macro style look, and most of the facts and figures are used are for the market as a whole, including dividend yield of the sp 500.

  5. 101 Centavos says:

    I like the macro view. Come payout time, I’m not one to complain about high yields.

  6. TimR says:

    Good article.

    I would add, however, that I think it’s unlikely that 20 is the new 10. Five more years of a secular bear and we will probably be in the 10-12 range and if you are correct about the longer time span, we will be below 10 by 2020. Most of the dividend aristos are already well below 20 and I certainly agree that they are not expensive.

    During the most recent plunge the Shiller S&P p/e fell from the 23-24 range to 20 – and that happened within a couple of weeks.

  7. Hi Dividend Pig,

    In my country, Singapore, dividend stocks are more popular among retirees who seek stable, regular cash flow. The good thing is, the baby boomers are retiring in swamps. They will probably switch their funds into dividend-paying blue chips over the next decade.

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