Sunday, November 3

Week 122 - Our Universe of 51 Companies

Situation: Stock selection comes down to assessing safety vs. efficacy. “Safety” means the company has effective defenses against having short sales consume more than 10% of its publicly-traded stock in a bear market, and effective defenses against bankruptcy. “Efficacy” means the company has a time-proven business plan that generates earnings growth over time. The problem is that many metrics are used to capture these values (safety & efficacy), and they only look backwards, amounting what the military calls “fighting the last war.” Our blog has carried on this tradition, be-laboring our readers with numbers that capture important information about safety & efficacy in the past. Simplification is needed, along with metrics that point to the future.

Safety is about having a stable return that grows over time with few hiccups. The main "hiccup" we want to avert is a serious drop in stock price because management then has to take measures (such as selling assets) to avert bankruptcy. To alleviate concerns like that, we won't consider any companies in this blog that have an S&P bond rating less than -A (Column N in the Table). When we invest for retirement we’re ultimately looking for retirement income that grows enough to beat inflation handily, i.e., dividend checks that arrive each quarter and get bigger each year. Remember: annuities and pensions don’t grow. Social Security is the only cost-effective exception to that rule. (At present, it more than keeps up with inflation but there is talk of having it merely keep up with inflation.) Going forward, stock ownership is likely to be the only way for investors to have a steady stream of income that more than keeps up with inflation. So what is the best way to find such stocks? You need start with the list of 200+ Dividend Achievers. Why? Because those are the only companies that will keep paying you more, year after year, and have done so for at least the past 10 yrs. Companies with a long record of increasing dividends irrespective of recessions are safe for retirement investment. You’re only looking at two metrics after you retire: a) dividend yield of the stocks you own (Column G in the Table), and b) dividend growth of the stocks you own (Column H in the Table). Adding those together approximates your future total return. What’s the catch? You need to be a little choosy in picking from the Dividend Achiever list because 1-2% of the names on that list will disappear each year. In other words, the company has discontinued annual dividend increases. This happened to Pfizer, General Electric, and Home Depot during the Lehman Panic. So you’ll need to pay particular attention to the next paragraph.

Efficacy means growth, and growth ultimately comes down to increasing sales and cash flow over time. The editors of Barron’s provide an important service to investors by publishing a 500-stock list each May that ranks companies by performance in those two key areas during the most recent 3 yrs, along with noting the previous year’s rank. Any company listed there has superior growth prospects, given that it has been chosen from the more than 6500 that are listed on US exchanges, plus those listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Now we can define a “universe” of worthwhile companies for our blog to follow, by listing all of the Dividend Achievers that appear in the 2013 Barron’s 500 list. It turns out that there are 51 (see Table). At the top, you’ll see 12 Lifeboat Stocks (Week 106). Those are the companies from defensive industries (utilities, consumer staples, healthcare, and communication services) that have a Finance Value (Reward minus Risk; see Column E of the Table) superior to that of our benchmark--the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (VBINX, which is 60% stock index and 40% bond index). Next are 7 additional defensive companies that have a Finance Value less than VBINX. The third group is most important: those are companies in non-defensive industries (energy, materials, industrials, financials, consumer discretionary, and information technology) that have a superior Finance Value compared to VBINX (see Column E in the Table). Companies in those industries do particularly well in a growing economy so you can think of them as “growth” companies. That’s where 2/3rds of your stock assets need to be. We call the best such companies Core Holdings (Week 102). The fourth group is for growth companies that didn’t have a Finance Value superior to VBINX. Benchmarks are at the bottom. Metrics are current as of close of business on October 30, 2013. 

Bottom Line: Stock-picking is cumbersome but for future retirees it has a uniquely worthwhile feature. You’ll get substantial annual pay raises during your retirement (Column H of the Table). Over the past 20 yrs, dividend growth rates have far exceeded inflation for companies that have committed to annual dividend increases. All 51 of the companies in the Table have been growing dividends annually for over 10 yrs; S&P calls such companies “Dividend Achievers.” Those 51 include 34 companies that have been growing dividends annually for over 25 yrs; S&P calls such companies “Dividend Aristocrats” and there are only 54 names in that group. The Barron’s 500 List has given us a way to winnow down that list of safe companies for retirement investment (Dividend Achievers), so as to include only those that have demonstrated increasing sales and cash flow growth in recent years. 

Risk Rating: 4

Full Disclosure: I make automatic monthly additions to DRIPs in ABT, JNJ, WMT, PG, KO, NEE, NKE, XOM, and IBM.

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