Friday, September 5, 2014

An Important Dividend Cut Case Study

Back in March, I explained why I sold my position in Tesco for a 22% loss.

Looks like it was the right move. As of this writing, the stock is down another 25% from my selling price. Worse, the company recently reduced its interim dividend by 75%.

Double whammy

By no means was I the first to highlight trouble at Tesco and plenty of observers have offered reasons for the company's decline. My focus here will be on the dividend.

Frankly, I'm still a bit stunned at how Tesco's turned out and think its dividend cut serves an important case study for dividend investors to review.

Consider that in fiscal year 2011 (year-end February 2011) Tesco increased its dividend by 10.8% -- marking an impressive 27 consecutive years of dividend increases. Well-respected long-term investors like Neil Woodford and Warren Buffett held considerable positions in Tesco and its UK market share was over 30%. All seemed to be right.

The board and management also appear to have been very confident in the future of the business, otherwise they wouldn't have increased the dividend at such a high rate in fiscal 2011.

With the exception of a financial crisis-scenario, rarely does a company have such a sharp reversal in dividend policy. Yet that's exactly what happened at Tesco. 

In fiscal year 2012, the dividend grew just 2.1%. The next year, it was held flat and stayed at that rate until it was finally cut in August 2014.

Source: Company filings
The company's dividend health, as measured by the Dividend Compass, was also deteriorating.

While some warning signs were present, the combination of Tesco's distinguished dividend track record, its real estate holdings, and its leading share of the UK grocery market remained for some compelling reasons to hold and hope for a dividend turnaround.

Yet the numbers didn't lie. Tesco's dividend health slowly worsened, the dividend yield steadily increased to more than twice the UK market average (usually a good sign that something's wrong), and it was only a matter of time before the board needed to make some tough decisions. 

Lessons learned

The first takeaway from Tesco's dividend cut is a reminder that no dividend is risk-less or sacrosanct. In the UK market, Tesco was a core holding in many dividend portfolios (including mine for a while) and up until a few years ago its payout was about as much of a sure thing as one could expect. Yet in a matter of three years Tesco went from dividend aristocrat to dividend plebian. If worse comes to worse, the board can always cut the company's dividend.

Second, it's critical to not "buy and forget" your investments. I know some well-intentioned dividend strategies advocate this approach and while I certainly appreciate the value of patience and keeping trading costs to a minimum, what happened with Tesco serves as an example of why some level of maintenance research is needed if you hope to avoid dividend cuts.

The combination of a permanent capital loss and a dividend cut can have a material impact on your longer-term income returns and you'll have less capital to reinvest in another dividend-paying stock. If you can catch a dividend cut early, you have much higher odds of preserving more of your capital.

Third, no matter how strong the company's dividend track record, if the numbers don't add up, it pays to be skeptical. Admittedly, I held onto Tesco a little too long thinking that it would simply take some time for the company to right the ship. When in doubt, preserve capital.

Fourth, while most dividend-focused portfolios are diversified, the Tesco share price decline and dividend cut is a reminder that it's important not to rely on any one stock (or one sector) to generate a large percentage of your dividend income.  

Finally, even if you're a patient investor, it's important to establish some selling rules. For example, one rule might be that if a company's dividend growth trajectory radically changes for the worse or is altogether halted, it's time to sell. In such a situation, it's highly likely that company leaders have changed their opinion about the company's ability to generate higher levels of cash flow.

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter @toddwenning

What I've been reading this week
Stay patient, stay focused.



Monday, September 1, 2014

Playing the Loser's Game

In a 1975 article in the Financial Analysts Journal entitled “The Loser’s Game”, Charles D. Ellis wrote:
Gifted, determined, ambitious professionals have come into investment management in such large numbers during the past 30 years that it may no longer be feasible for any of them to profit from the errors of all the others sufficiently often and by sufficient magnitude to beat the market averages.
Ellis concluded that the influx of smart and motivated people into the industry led to money management becoming a “loser’s game” -- a game in which you'd be crazy to compete and one that you should perhaps consider surrendering to (i.e. buy an index fund). Ellis recently reiterated this opinion in a recent article for the Financial Analysts Journal

Time to throw in the towel?

It's natural to read these comments and get discouraged about buying individual stocks, but Ellis's 1975 article offers a few excellent tips on how to not play the loser's game. 

1. Be sure you are playing your own game.

The individual investor’s advantage is not in trading. The hedge funds, mutual funds, and professional traders of the world simply have better data, more advanced trading platforms, and more financial incentive to focus on the short-term. The weekend investor doesn’t stand a chance versus this type of firepower, so trading is a game where the odds are stacked against the individual investor.

Staying patient, keeping a long-term mindset, and exploiting your advantages as an individual investor alters the playing field and improves your odds of success.

2. Keep it simple.

The less complicated your investment strategy, the better. As Ellis recommends, "Try to do a few things well." By focusing your efforts on one strategy -- whether it is based on dividends, small caps, deep value, etc -- and consistently sticking with it, you can more effectively tune out distractions and make better decisions. As a result, you'll keep trading costs down and give yourself the best opportunity to realize your return objectives. 

3. Concentrate on your defenses.

Ellis advocates improving your selling strategy because the market’s focus on buying makes it difficult to gain an edge on that side of the equation. It’s a fair point. 

To figure out how we might improve our selling strategy, let's consider the market's selling strategy.

While each investment firm has its own selling strategy, we know that the average mutual fund turnover ratio in recent years implies that, on average, stocks owned by funds have been held for just over one year.

Our key strength as individual investors lies in our ability to be patient, so our selling strategy should start with the idea of holding for at least three years and ideally five years or longer. Obviously if one of your stocks shoots well above your fair value estimate, it might be time to sell or trim the position, but on average we should look to hold for longer periods of time.

4. Don’t take it personally.

According to Ellis, the market turned into a loser's game precisely because investors’ "efforts to beat the market are no longer the most important part of the solution; they are the most important part of the problem." Resist the temptation to try harder for better returns. In fact, do just the opposite. This doesn’t mean you should pick stocks at random and buy and hold forever. Do your homework, of course, but be deliberate and patient, too. Let the market go through its phases of euphoria and despair and stay your course. Don't try to force returns.

Bottom line

Trying to beat the market in the short-run is a loser’s game if you make it your primary investment objective, so don’t play it. Instead, redefine the game. Establish your own objectives, stick to your strengths, and stay patient and when you look back at your returns five years from now, I think you'll like what you see. If you happen to beat the market, all the better.

For more on the "loser's game", a new multi-part video series by Sensible Investing addresses the topic and has a lined up a number of good interviewees. Here's the trailer.

What do you think? Let me know on Twitter @toddwenning

I've updated my Dividend Compass spreadsheet to fix a few bugs. You can download the updated version here

What I've been reading this week:

Stay patient, stay focused. 



A version of this post was published on April 14, 2012. It has been updated.