Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Most Dangerous Time to Pick High-Yield Stocks

The most dangerous time to pick high-yield stocks is in the late stage of a bull market, which I believe we're in today.

One of the oldest investment adages is that "bull markets climb a wall of worry" and that has certainly been true of this market. Despite all the various crises -- Greece, the Eurozone, fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, Manti Te'o's girlfriend, etc. -- many major global markets are at or near five-year highs. 

From a dividend investor's perspective, however, it's precisely the worry that provides the opportunities to buy quality high-yield shares -- defined loosely here as companies with strong balance sheets, plenty of dividend cover, a good track record of raising dividend payouts, and sustainable competitive advantages -- at discounted prices.

As markets rally and the worry dissipates, however, dividend yields naturally go in the opposite direction and the number of good opportunities dries up.

Quality rallies early

Consider the performance of the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY) -- which tracks the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats Index -- versus the SPDR S&P (SPY) since the nadir of the financial crisis.

Source: Yahoo! Finance
Just about neck-and-neck over the period, but let's take a look at how they performed in the two years after the low-point in the market:

Source: Yahoo! Finance
For most of this two year period, the SDY steadily outperformed the index. Eventually, however, the index caught up and they've been trading pretty much in-line ever since:

Source: Yahoo! Finance
Though the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats Index may not be the perfect tracker of "quality" dividend stocks, I do consider it a fair proxy. As such, we can gather from this example that quality dividend payers got snapped up fairly quickly in this bull market. By early 2011, the Aristocrats index was likely trading at or near fair value.

Once the quality names have been picked up in the early stages of a bull market, investors looking for a combination of high-yield and quality are normally left needing to compromise one for the other.

This isn't to say there aren't special cases for investors to pick up quality high-yield names at a discount during a bull market -- markets can also overreact to a bad earnings report or temporary sector concerns -- but, as a whole, quality high-yield names are normally snapped up early on.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

When examining a high-yield stock in this type of market, it's imperative to examine why the stock's yield remains well above the market average. If it possesses market-average risk and growth potential, it stands to reason that its yield should also approximate the market average and that investors should have bid up the stock price by now. If its current yield is still 2x the market average, then, it's probably a good indication that something is wrong with the underlying business -- either it has considerable risk factors or its growth outlook is quite meager. In either case, it probably can't be defined as a "quality" dividend payer.

To further illustrate this concept, let's step into the way-back machine for a moment and travel back to early 2008, near the end of the previous bull market. At the end of 2007, the S&P 500 average dividend yield was 1.89% putting any stock over 3.8% firmly into the high-yield category (my rule-of-thumb is 2x the market average in the U.S.).

I was able to find a helpful table of the highest-yielding Dow 30 stocks as of January 24, 2008 and examine their subsequent five-year dividend growth rates.

Source:, Yahoo! Finance; Altria dividend growth as of June 2008, post-PM spin off.
The dividend-based performance of these shares since the end of the last bull market is certainly mixed, with Altria being the stand-out star, especially when you factor in the performance of Philip Morris International over the period. AT&T and Verizon did reasonably well, too, but you certainly got what you paid for -- high-yield and low dividend growth. As for Pfizer, Citigroup, and GM...the numbers speak for themselves. 

A look at the highest-yielding stocks in the S&P 500 from around the same time is even more troubling, with a number of famous dividend blow-ups found therein. 

Granted, a good percentage of the 1,000+ dividend cuts by U.S. companies in 2008 and 2009 were financials and I don't expect another massive round of dividend cuts in the near future, but the principle holds true that investors should be very skeptical of the highest-yielding stocks in the late stages of a bull market as the "margin of safety" has shrunk considerably.

A cautionary tale

If you've already built your dividend-focused portfolio, this may be a good time to review the highest-yielding names in your portfolio, but it isn't necessarily a screaming sell signal if you have a long time horizon and can afford to be patient. On the other hand, if you're starting to build a dividend-focused portfolio right now or are looking to add new names to your portfolio, proceed with caution when considering high-yield stocks.

As always, thanks for reading and please post any comments below or on our dividend investing community page on Google Plus.


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