Sunday, January 13

Week 80 - 2012 Total Return for the Growing Perpetuity Index

Situation: The US economy has improved but only enough for job growth to keep up with population growth. The stock market, on the other hand, is pointing to the likelihood that the rate of economic expansion (GDP) will soon double to more than 3%/yr. We’re in a bull market, which we define as the S&P 500 Index outperforming the “blue-chip” 65-stock Dow Jones Composite Index. During 2012, there was a wide gap between the two with the S&P 500 Index gaining 13% vs. 5% for the Dow Jones Composite Index. Those are price-only indices so dividends, which are ~30% greater for the blue-chip index, aren’t counted. Therein lies the problem! Fear of going over the “fiscal cliff” had investors pulling money out of stocks that pay good dividends. Those dividends would have been taxed approximately twice as much had we gone over the cliff. We didn’t and are predicting that 2013 will see a renewed interest in dividend-paying stocks.

It’s time to update our previously published Growing Perpetuity Index (GPI, see Week 66). The 12 companies in our GPI  are the bluest of blue-chips, and had an average Total Return of only 3.8% (Table). For 5 and 10 yr periods, the GPI handily outperformed the S&P 500 Index, as well as the Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund, a more appropriate benchmark for the GPI (Table). We have separated those 12 stocks into two groups, 7 that are low risk and 5 that are high risk.

Warren Buffett has stated on several occasions that stocks having a 5-yr Beta greater than 0.7 are best avoided. And the better hedge funds generally have 5-yr betas of less than 0.7. Indeed, at the May 2012 annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett indicated that a group of 5 above-average hedge funds lost 35% less than the S&P 500 Index during the Lehman Panic (Week 46). In other words, those hedge funds had a 5-yr Beta of less than 0.65. That is why we have recently started breaking our blog tables into two groups: an upper group that lost less than 65% as much as the S&P 500 Index during the Lehman Panic and had a 5-yr Beta less than 0.65, vs. a lower group that doesn’t meet that standard (see Week 78).

Our GPI has 7 such companies in the top group (Table): Wal*Mart (WMT), McDonald’s (MCD), NextEra Energy (NEE), IBM (IBM), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Coca-Cola (KO) and Procter & Gamble (PG). Those 7 had an average total return of 8% in 2012. More importantly, the aggregate data for those 7 stocks (line 9 of the Table) is impressive. Only two other A-rated dividend-paying stocks in the S&P 500 Index can come close to matching that data set, namely, Darden Restaurants (DRI) and General Mills (GIS). Darden Restaurants’ credit rating is too low to warrant inclusion in our Master List (Week 78) and General Mills has only raised its dividend for 6 consecutive yrs, instead of the 10 required for inclusion in the Master List. A recent hit movie (“Moneyball” based on the 2003 book of the same name by Michael Lewis) dwelt on this point by showing that a baseball team composed of players that individually had a low market value could outperform richer teams if those players collectively had a high on-base percentage. This concept came earlier to the investment world, in the early 1980s, when Michael Milken showed that “fallen angels” (corporate bonds that had slipped below an investment-grade rating) could give good results if, as a group, key ratios were at an investment grade level.

The point here is that every company’s competitive advantage is a work in progress. Some years the pieces fall together nicely but other years see a potent competitor taking market share. Only by holding a number of well-chosen stocks can you pull ahead of the pack.

Bottom Line: If you’re within 15 yrs of retirement, confine your stock-picking to tickers with a 5 yr Beta of less than 0.65 that lost less than 65% as much as the S&P 500 Index during the Lehman Panic.

Risk Rating: 3.  

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