Delivering Alpha – NOT!

Perhaps I was anticipating too much based on hype and previous editions, but this years CNBC Delivering Alpha conference failed to deliver.  Come on, aren’t there any new and exciting things on the horizon to capture an investor’s fancy? Obviously not, as the VP’s message of a booming economy was sandwiched between short ideas and negative interest rate survival.  All interlaced with the drizzle of ESG investing and streaming concepts – in theory new and improved versions. Sorry, all this is old news, making me think CNBC has lost the concept of Alpha.  ESG has largely turned political (which introduces uncertainty) and the window of opportunity for nice gains in streaming closed about a year ago (about the time I added to my Comcast position).

Investopedia defines Alpha as a term used in investing to describe a strategy’s ability to beat the market – what most of us aspire for.  DGI investing generally attempts to quantify (and reduce) said risk while serving up a theoretically predictable outcome. My portfolio is a modified DGI strategy in that I attempt to introduce some Alpha to maintain my streak of beating the market as defined by the S&P index. I do this by introducing an underlying theme that I meld a portion of my portfolio into.  Past examples include Community Bank consolidation and the Rise of Fintech.

One that delivered Alpha to my portfolio this week was within the theme Transaction Processing.  On Thursday, Total Systems Services (TSS) was lost from my portfolio and replaced by Global Payments, Inc. (GPN)  via the consummation of their merger. TSS was a company that I seriously doubt was held by many other DGI enthusiasts.  To identify why, let’s run it through the illustrious Dividend Diplomat stock screener which addresses most – if not all – the conventional metrics most individual investors would use in decision making.  

Metric #1 P/E Ratio Less than the S&P 500

At purchase, the ratio was 19.16 and the S&P was 20.12.  A technical pass, although the Diplomats prefer a greater margin.

Metric #2 Payout Ratio of Less than 60%

At purchase, the payout ratio was roughly 22.95% (FY2016).  A definite pass.

Metric #3 Increasing Dividends

Here lies the major failure, which probably would have caused the Diplomats and most DGI purists to pass on TSS.  Their record is pitiful with two raises in eight years and the yield rarely exceeded 1%.


My take has always been to consider Total Return as the primary metric with a significant emphasis on Dividend Growth/Safety.  Although TSS’s dividend has been wanting, since I owned it it has delivered 30% average annual price appreciation with an additional 49% since the merger was announced, bringing my total unrealized capital gain to 390% plus a miniscule, taxable dividend.

Rather than reward shareholders directly, they chose to reinvest in R&D and growing the business which probably provided a greater return – and tax-deferred to boot.  The arguments against this approach are consistency and dependability. Additionally, this requires a level of trust in management. Granted, in some cases this depends on being in the right place at the right time as well – and this example is an extreme success story.  Yes, I do have several that I’m waiting on to pan out which is why I categorize this approach as speculative with only a small portion of my portfolio looking for the next emerging brilliant idea or better mousetrap.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my dividends.  In general, DGI provides a stable, consistent foundation.  But a little dash of Alpha through total return could be the difference in beating your index. As always, your views are welcome!

Observations – r2019.4.7

Last weeks’ update mentioned the – at that time – inverted yield curve. The economists views on what this portends is all over the map from impending recession to this time is different. A couple of articles on Seeking Alpha address these concerns, with Christopher VanWert advocating a position in Consumer Staples and bonds and the self-professed contrarian Peter Schiff spinning a more ominous conclusion. My take? It’s always wise to be aware of all possibilities when setting a course. Banks – moreso the community banks – will bear the brunt of any prolonged inversion setting the stage for potential further consolidation. It might be too late for a meaningful increase in Staples as they’ve become rather pricey of late. Bonds may be an alternative but still carry a premium to what I’m willing to pay. Not mentioned are utilities as they have a perceived sensitivity to interest rates. What is often overlooked is that regulated utilities have the ability to pass this through to their customers, albeit with a delay. My action items will – first and foremost – address the speculative portion of my portfolio to de-risk to a degree.

It’s a little gratifying when other bloggers see a social issue in a similar vein, as in Bert’s piece on stock buybacks. Other issues gaining traction – outside my rants last month – found their way over to Dividend Ninja with his take on the low unemployment rate. As he is Canadian, the US centric version would also have to consider the acceleration of expensing as part of last year’s tax plan – the result being companies getting a tax break to increase automation to increase throughput (or reduce headcount). Also of note is his piece on dividend cuts. I’ll acknowledge cuts may be a sign of proactive management but it is easily a sign of mismanagement – especially when triggered by debt covenants. Most investors don’t have the time or energy to sort through the issues – hence the common rule of thumb, Sell on the news.

This week will be decision time – did I allow enough cash to accumulate to pay the tax man (or woman). I scaled my reinvestment back during the quarter so we’ll see if I have to sell a little or not. Interestingly, an analyst on CNBC last week attributed the slow-down in new car sales to the surprises in store with the tax plan. That has me wondering if that could translate into the housing market OR if that’s why the Trump team is so driven for the Fed to cut rates?

As always, comments are welcome and have a good week!

February 2019 Update

The markets continued the rise with major averages finishing higher now 3 of the last 4 months. I did deploy the excess cash from January but still remain a little cash heavy due to the GE sale. The S&P rose 2.89% while my portfolio rose 4.11%. For the year, I’m slightly ahead of the benchmark by 0.41%. Yes, it’s still early in the game but I choose to heed Warren Buffett’s advice in last week’s annual letter: Focus on the Forest – Forget the TreesYes I have a few trees that are diseased and a couple that could be pruned but in the main my forest remains healthy.

PORTFOLIO UPDATES

  • Increased WBS position
  • Sold entire GE position

DIVIDENDS

While my primary focus resides on dividends with the goal being a rising flow of dividends on an annual basis, I’m placing less emphasis on the quarterly numbers as the number of semi-annual, interim/final and annual cycles have been steadily increasing in my portfolio. This month presents a great example of this rationale.

  • February delivered an increase of 22.7% Y/Y, the impacts being dividend increases, special dividends and reinvesting merger cash proceeds into the portfolio.
  • February delivered a 5.94% decrease over last quarter (Nov) – the impact being: Five of my companies pay in a March, May, Aug, Nov cycle in line with their AGMs (Mar), one changed to a Jun, Dec interim final cycle. This impact should be normalized next quarter.
  • Dividend increases averaged 8.59% with 32.27% of the portfolio delivering at least one increase (including 3 cuts (two being OMI)). This is somewhat off last years’ pace for the same reasons outlined by Bert.
  • 2019 Dividends received were 14.73% of 2018 total dividends putting me on target to exceed last years’ total in late October.

Note: I updated my Goals page to provide a visual of these numbers.  Based on Mr All Things Money’s instruction set with a conversion to percentages.  My code only updates when the monthly Y/Y number is exceeded.  Otherwise, the prior year actual is used.

SPINOFFs

NVS proposed spin of Alcon scheduled for shareholder approval Feb 2019

On Oct 4,2018 MSG filed a confidential Form 10 to spin the sports business

MERGERS

XRX merger with Fujifilm cancelled (still being litigated).

BNCL to merge into WSFS

BHBK to merge into INDB

SUMMARY

The blog data conversion to 2019 is almost complete. The most significant error is my cost basis (dividend date screen) which doesn’t yet account for all DRIP additions or additional purchases.

Bank Strategy – 2017/2018 Review

During the 2007/2008 financial crisis, bank stocks were one place many investors fled from – like herds of lemmings.  I can’t say this was unreasonable as these companies sustained blow after blow – some deserved and some not.  When a company such as Lehman collapses,  mortgage  GSEs are federalized and mortgage lending comes to a grinding halt one has to consider the Chicken Little scenario – is the sky really falling?  From this systemic failure emerged a new dawn on the heels of legislation, notably Dodd-Frank.  Though far from perfect, this bill in 2010 established a floor from which the system could be rebuilt.

To paraphrase Warren Buffett, my view was this fear and dysfunction presented an opportunity.  With the dust beginning to settle, in early 2013 I dipped my toes back into Financials.  With the exception of Prosperity Bank (PB), which I classified as a Core position at that time along with a few others, these holdings – peaking at about 32% of the total portfolio in aggregate – didn’t exceed the 1% threshold individually.  Financials currently hold 29.9% and are trending down.  Truth be told, this group did provide the octane enabling my portfolio to consistently exceed the benchmark.

The Dividend Diplomats employ a similar small bank strategy but our approaches differ.  Whereas their baseline is the dividend screen process, I rely more on size and geography.  This is due primarily to embedded distortions in a TARP (and post-TARP) world as well as historical factors regarding bank failures.  For example, Lanny’s Isabella Bank purchase wouldn’t make it onto my list as I consider Michigan banks inherently risky due to the number of failures within the state during the last crisis.  You could posit a macro versus micro view in our perspectives.

Since I began this strategy I’ve periodically reported my results with my 2015 and 2016 reviews.  I was remiss earlier this year as the pace of significant mergers decreased in the post-Trump world.  This activity is now accelerating due to two factors, I think.  The first being the Dodd-Frank modifications enacted in May making it less onerous for banks of a certain size to combine.  The second being rising interest rates.  This one is less obvious as rising rates should be a boon to banks.  However, the spread between long and short rates is compressing (perhaps inverting soon?) which is where much of the profit is derived.  So the results, please?

Bank Strategy
YEAR TTL FULL PREM REVERSE % NOTES
2014 6 1 2 21.9% 41 positions
2015 16 3 0 38.7% 49 positions
2016 8 2 0 13.8% 58 positions
2017 16 1 0 25.8% 62 positions
2018 15 5 1 19.23% 78 positions

Note: through 7 Oct 2018

Of interest is that the majority of 2017 was mostly a year of consolidation with smaller banks (usually thinly traded or private) being acquired by one of my holdings.  2018 is interesting in that a number of mergers have a cash component which adds to the complexity of determining the ‘real’ valuation resulting in some initial pricing or recommendation assessments by firms on Wall Street.  I bought into two of these before the assessment changed in my favor (resulting in an unanticipated unrealized gain).

Now that this sector is pretty much fairly valued unless some compelling opportunity presents itself I’ll hope for some of the remaining 73 to be acquired and place my cash elsewhere. 🙂

Half Year Dividend Increases (2018)

Last quarter, I initiated a series on dividend increases experienced within my portfolio.  The data used was based on actual announcements and identified increases that were “Outsized” as well as those that were merely “Tiny”.

In Lanny’s recent piece, The Impact of Dividend Increases through June of 2018, though thoughtful and in a similar vein, was troubling to me in a subtextual way.  Not that the data presented was inaccurate per se, only that the derived message was a little (likely unintentional) deceiving to the majority of his followers.  The two deficiencies I found in his data were:

  1. Visa reported a dividend increase of 7.69% while he reports 7.73%.  This is likely caused by rounding as his data source (dividend increase from the monthly posts) is based on whole dollars.  A dividend change from $.195 to $.21 will likely result in broker rounding distorting derived percentages.  Not major as he probably saw a 7.73% personal increase.
  2. His approach on annualization is wrong.  The statement, “Of course, one can annualize the percentage and equate to 6.78%.” which is a doubling of the six month number, ignores conventions established by the Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) which include, “any investment that does not have a track record of at least 365 days cannot “ratchet up” its performance to be annualized.”  The basic flaw in his approach lies in the fact that his data is not normalized to reflect varying declaration (effective) dates throughout the date range used thereby distorting any derived “annualization” process.

Like some of the commenters, I too began the process of calculating my personal results in this manner until my eureka moment arrived.  There is minimal correlation between actual results and the Dividend Growth Rate. The greater correlation resides in the allocation (quantity) within the portfolio.  Yes the power of DGR is real but is not static. It will fluctuate over time across companies, industries and investment allocations. Nor is it predictable. At which point I ceased this replication exercise.

On a similar note, Buy Hold Long issued a challenge to increase total forward dividend income by 4.24% during the month of July.  A noble challenge indeed. However, the unintended consequences are potential reinforcement of bad habits.  For example, how many investors will be researching high yield or investments inappropriate to the degree of personal safety required?  Or putting their strategy aside to engage in this quest? On the other hand, I’m with Mr SLM’s comment when he says, “I think I’m on the part of the curve where increases aren’t linear from contributions”.

I guess my root issue with my disdain with these endeavors is the fact that we know not our audience.  One could assume a baseline knowledge level – but this would be strictly an assumption. This brings to mind another study of mine from a couple of years ago.  At that time I was unable to prove any confirmation bias but still have been unable to shake the sense that there is some within the community – especially with newcomers.  Also, we can’t discount the number of mirror, copycat or coattail strategies that are prolific today. Which is the probable reason I shy from these types of analyses/events.  I like to think that my results can be replicated (if desired) whether a portfolio is robust or just beginning which highlights why I report percentages.

As usual, I digress.  The purpose today is to share the first half increases – by percentage – reported by my dividend payers.  One item to note is the increases enjoyed by financials (banks, in particular) will be tough to replicate going into 2019.

And this, my friends, is the message this week with the upcoming earnings season sure to present some interesting commentary 🙂

Tax Time & Earnings Season

For all the procrastinators out there the deadline is near.  In fact, this year I was one – completing mine yesterday.  This season brings to mind some of the best practices compiled to minimize – or delay – the tax hit, thereby maximizing disposable income published by the Dividend Diplomats.  Though geared towards wage earners, I can be considered a poster child of these practices as one migrates from the accumulation phase of investing.  Over the years the use of many of these strategies have resulted in continued savings well into retirement.  Case in point being a 2017 Federal effective tax rate of  8.04% on a six figure Adjusted Gross Income ($156 of which was earned income).  Take advantage of all of the breaks provided in life as early as possible to reap the rewards (true in investing as well).

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Picking Winners & Identifying Losers

It has been said many times before that attempting to time the market is a fool’s errand. One approach common with Dividend Growth Investors the one taken by DivHut which is to  “…invest in a consistent and systematic manner. Over the long haul, being invested and staying invested in the stock market gives you the best long term odds of success.”  The benefits are consistency, removing emotions and dollar cost averaging while the disadvantages – particularly if fully invested – is the reduced ability to take advantage of “one day sale events” which are becoming more common.

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