March 2019 Update

With it being tax time in the US, closing out the first quarter and a yield curve inversion – this week’s installment has plenty to offer. With the market generally on the rise for the month I decided to maintain a cash heavy (for me) position while putting the finishing touches on my tax return. My general attitude has been one of caution for the past several months with the markets finally putting a yield curve inversion on display. Larry Kudlow was making the rounds this morning maintaining this is an aberration – and it very well could be. But it easily could be an omen of a looming recession – perhaps as early as late this year. Meanwhile, the S&P rose 1.76% while my portfolio rose 1.05%. For the year, I’m slightly behind the benchmark by -0.71%.

PORTFOLIO UPDATES

  • Increased my ETF position (CUT,VGK,EWA,EWW,JPMV)
  • added WSFS and lost BNCL (merger)

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.

  • March delivered an increase of 8.34% Y/Y, the largest impacts being dividend cuts and a couple of cycle changes offset by increases.
  • March delivered a 23.3% increase over last quarter (Dec) – basically a return to normalcy.
  • Dividend increases averaged 6.19% with 34.55% of the portfolio delivering at least one increase (including 4 cuts (two being OMI)). This is off last years’ pace and I believe a new personal record for dividend cuts in a single year since about 1980. The most recent one being UNIT whose largest customer declared bankruptcy.
  • 2019 Dividends received were 27.12% 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 spin of Alcon (ALC) scheduled for April 9th, 1:5 ratio

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 merger into WSFS completed March 1st

BHBK to merge into INDB

TRUMP TAX PLAN IMPACT

This is a brief preview of the tax changes at a personal level. Headlines have previously reported that early filers were seeing lower average refunds – my guess is most of these did not adjust their withholding. Since then, the IRS has reported that the refunds have begun to ‘normalize’. As one who itemizes, my sense is that many filers are beginning to identify their own impact. In my case, I have a tax increase – not a cut – primarily due to being just below the new threshold for itemization. The standard deduction coupled with the tax brackets did a little number on me – which is what I was expecting so I wasn’t caught unaware. Adding salt to the wound was another change that disallows my minimal IRA contribution (as a non W-2 wage earner). On the bright side, my foreign taxes paid on dividends can still be applied as a tax credit. Bottom line – only in Trump World would the path to Making America Great Again run through the field of non-US stocks – assuming one wants as low a tax liability as possible.

SUMMARY

The blog data conversion to 2019 is almost complete still being worked on. The most significant error is my cost basis (dividend date screen) which doesn’t yet account for all DRIP additions or additional purchases. At this rate it may be 2020 before I finish this update.

Hope your month/quarter was a good one!

Advertisements

Buybacks (part 2)

To follow a theme outlined a couple of weeks ago, my going forward intent in my random musings segments is to view some of the issues of the 2020 presidential campaign under discussion.  My investing rationale has always been that to be successful, one has to understand all possible outcomes which means digging through a lot of crap to discern viable opportunities. It would appear at this early stage that much like 2016, 2020 will have plenty of that to wade through.  As an added bonus, I don’t want to disappoint my newest audience demographic by suppressing my irreverence. As always, these are only observations awaiting an investing opportunity that may never present itself.

The Pitchfork Economics series on buybacks continued on February 26th with Sen. Cory Booker (one of the multitude of Democratic presidential contenders) as a guest discussing his new bill, Workers Dividend Act.  Evidence cited to support his cause is twofold.

  1. American Airlines (AAL) wage increase was roundly panned by analysts.   Booker states the analyst opinions were misguided – which is true. To parlay these opinions into supporting rationale against buybacks is equally misguided as these were partially collectively bargained.  (i.e., benefit to unionized employees which is a goal of the bill.)
  2. His use of Walmart (WMT) as the proverbial case of buyback greed ignores some aspects that are detrimental to his position.  Walmart offers its’ employees matching 401K plans, stock ownership plans with a 15% discount and HSAs, of which some – if not all – allow employees to share proportionately in the “wealth” gained through buybacks.  The choice resides with the employee as to participation.

In an attempt to frame rhetoric with reality, I chose my oldest 15 holdings to identify what happened over the past three years.

Company201820172016
Comcast3.05% decline1.83% decline 3.18% decline
WEC Energy 0.09% decline .09% incr. 16.21% incr.
Chevron0.46% incr.1.33% incr.0.11% decline
Kimberly-Cl.1.77% decline 1.6% decline 1.26% decline
Norf. Southrn3.48% decline 1.93% decline 2.76% decline
Clorox1.19% decline 0.11% decline 0.8% decline
Prosperity B.0.51% incr. 0.28% decline 0.53% decline
Sysco0.5% decline5% decline 3.26% decline
Owens & Minor0.0% change 0.16% decline 0.16% decline
Walt Disney1.51% decline 3.72% decline 4.1% decline
Home Depot2.81% decline 3.82% decline 4.68% decline
PepsiCo0.9% decline 0.96% decline 2.22% decline
Kimco Realty0.62% decline 1.03% incr.1.66% incr.
Towne Bank0.13% incr.0.08% incr.1.05% incr.

Data from MacroTrends

In this scenario (excluding increases denoted bold/italic), the buybacks – as a percentage of the stock outstanding – actually decreased during each of Trump’s years as president despite the tax plan (from 2.1%/1.94%/1.45%).  Companies increasing their share count did so generally to use as currency in lieu of debt. In Chevron’s case this was to fund capital expenditures. Most of the others were for acquisitions.  It’s only slightly ironic that a merger cutting jobs and increasing capital concentration (banking sector) would be viewed more favorably due to an expanding share count

This discussion topic has also been picked up by Mr Tako Escapes who elaborates more skillfully than I.  I don’t dispute two points here, 1) Companies tend to have poor judgement in the timing of these transactions (buy high) and 2) the dollar amounts being expended.  But a dose of reality has to exist as well, I mean – realistically how many capex dollars should be spent to further the worldwide glut of steel (as one example)?

At least this exercise has been interesting but to draw any real conclusions requires a larger sample size.  More questions will also arise such as, ‘Are buybacks more prevalent in the overall S&P universe moreso than the DGI slice?’ or ‘Is my portfolio a large enough sample to be reflective of the stats bandied about by the Democratic candidates?’.  As usual in this blog, more questions than answers. I intend to complete this exercise for all of my holdings during the year

Other concepts will likely hit the garbage heap prior to getting much traction including a wealth tax (constitutional issues) and Modern Monetary Policy (hyperinflation).  As an aside, these concerns, per David McWilliams piece entitled Quantitative easing was the father of millennial socialism as presented by Ben Carlson makes for an interesting case. It certainly appears that the 2020 election season is off to a rousing start. Bottom line, I suspect some candidates will use this issue as a cry to rally the base with minimal substance to follow – similar in many ways to “Build the Wall” of yesteryear.  A reflection of what little has been learned over the last two years. In my mind not an investable theory.  

As always, opinions are welcome!

Stock Buybacks?

As we round the corner coming into the final week of this month, the markets are showing a robustness that is probably more of a relief with abating trade tensions as the broader market was more a mixed bag with earnings reports. Case in point being my ongoing saga with Owens & Minor which announced their second dividend cut. At least they aren’t facing a SEC investigation à la Kraft Heinz. The common denominator in these two cases appear to be – at least in part – a laser focus on trimming costs with too much emphasis on the salary component.

Which leads to this week’s topic prompted by a private message which read in part: “… (I listen to) Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer … (which) talked about stock buybacks and shareholder value maximization… I was hoping you could listen to it and let me know if everything they talk about holds up, or if there are pieces of the puzzle missing that might have been left out to steer a narrative. I don’t know what I don’t know and I don’t like thinking I might be getting misled.

First half the battle is acknowledging a gap in understanding. Most of us only begin to realize this too late in life choosing to muddle through as best we can. Second, keep in mind the quote, “99 percent of all statistics only tell 49 percent of the story.” Ron DeLegge II

For my uninitiated readers, this podcast is targeted to the rising generational groups such as Millennials, Gen-Z etc. with a slight Socialistic slant. The New Green Deal (which I’m currently researching) resides in this category as well – (but with a twist). Anyway, there are three schools of thought to stock buybacks; they are good, they are evil or they’re neither. The podcast presents them as generally bad, the current administration treats them as good (no choice here as they were spurred on as a by-product of the tax plan). My personal view is under current law – particularly when the Supreme Court of the United States has granted to corporations the notion of “corporate personhood” – they are generally neither. I’m more of a guy that tries to eke out a profit regardless of the rules, knowing they will likely change at a future date and adjustments will be required.

Major Issues with the Podcast

  • 11:44 – “Secondary offerings aren’t all that important”
    • Depends on the type – if the secondary creates more shares to fund a new production line for instance, why would there be a penalty for a return to the original share count?
  • 18:30 – 90% of corporate profits are returned to the richest people via dividends and stock buybacks.
    • Wells Fargo is 62% owned by institutions and the number is about 15% for Walmart. Generally this reflects ETFs and mutual funds which are largely owned by individuals.
  • 16:00 – shareowners are not investors.
    21:07 – … buying stock is speculating not investing .
    23:01 –  … if you think shareholders are investors … that contributes to the growing economic inequality
    • Only in the narrowest of definitions (buying an initial issuance or direct from a company’s secondary) is this true. Even as “traders” an economic interest with ownership rights is gained with the price (implied value) the speculation.
  • 26:49 – chartered corporations existed to better society and for a limited time.
    • These types of corporate structures were modified (initially in NC-1795) to circumvent perceived constitutional limitations on enforcement of multi-state investments (canals, railroads). They maintained a societal purpose including eminent domain rights (conversely, eminent domain is a New Green Deal issue as well).
  • 33:32    – Wells Fargo … laid off employees while (enriching owners through buybacks).
    • The layoffs were due primarily to exiting business lines in an effort to refocus on core operations reducing (in theory) the ongoing capability for malfeasance.  Also to reduce overlapping operations (footprint acquired through acquisitions). It was not related to buybacks. In fact, Warren Buffett, the largest shareholder is precluded from owning greater than 10%.  He is required to sell when buybacks are performed resulting in no short term enrichment.

The one point I hadn’t really considered in this debate was their point at 40:08 of a possible prohibition of buybacks if employees are receiving public assistance. I would add underfunded pensions and Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) position of taxing buybacks like dividends to the mix of potential areas to improve. One area requiring caution is the treatment of large private companies versus public ones. Examples that initially come to mind are Hobby Lobby, Cargill, Chick-fil-A and Koch Industries. None of the Democratic challengers has yet presented (in my opinion) a viable solution to improve the status quo without discriminating against any current stakeholder thereby cheapening their argument regarding equality.

So, while appreciating the question, my response is probably clear a mud as this issue is a tangled web with no clear right or wrong answer. Only that your instincts are correct in attempting to discern all the arguments to formulate your own opinion. My guess is this rebuttal does not fully address all the issues either – but my 2¢!

Any thoughts, opinions or other considerations that you have?

January 2019 Update

The new year began with a flourish shrugging off the December selloff and recovering most of the losses. With the month exhibiting minimal turbulence outside some earnings misses, my purchases were essentially toppers to existing holdings (except one) – all in the first week. The S&P rose 7.29% while my portfolio lagged a little rising 6.48%. In reality, I was probably even but my cash position was abnormally high as I failed to deploy the cash received from a merger (I exclude cash from my investing positions). I expect this will normalize during February.

PORTFOLIO UPDATES

  • Lost GBNK, GNBC and SHPG via mergers
  • Added TAK and regained IBTX via mergers
  • Added new position BDXA
  • Increased VGK, MSCI, SF, JPMV, HTH, GNTY, EBSB, EWA, DGX, CUT, CL, BNCL and BHBK positions

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.

  • January delivered an increase of 19.63% Y/Y, the impacts being dividend increases, special dividends and reinvesting merger cash proceeds into the portfolio.
  • January delivered a 0.83% decrease over last quarter (Oct) – the impact of two dividend cuts.
  • Dividend increases averaged 8.84% with 20.81% of the portfolio delivering at least one increase (including 2 cuts (GE, OMI).
  • 2019 Dividends received were 9.33% of 2018 total dividends putting me on target to exceed last years’ total in 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.

2019 conversion remains pending

SPINOFFs

GE‘s rail unit to spin then merge with WEB. This was restructured in January to generate more cash for GE – end result being a taxable event for shareowners

GE to spin 80% of the health business

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

To escape January’s dividend cuts relatively unscathed is monumental. Back in October my expectation was for the effects to linger through the first quarter. Now I can just put my head down and focus on the long game.

Dec 2018 Update and Year End Review

he fourth quarter swoon continued in earnest this month resulting in an annual loss for the markets.  While the final trading day closed higher (DJIA up 265, NASDAQ up 51 and the S&P up 21) it was nowhere near close enough to avoid the worst December since 1931.  Though surprised by the resiliency of the US dollar, last year’s intent to migrate further into foreign equities was largely preempted by tariff uncertainty. My other 2018 concern of rising federal deficits stifling the economy did not manifest itself as yet – though I remain skeptical of  administration claims that growth can outpace the deficit. For the month, the S&P index dropped by 9.18% while my portfolio dropped by ‘only’ 8.44%. For the year the S&P posted an unusual loss of 6.65% while my overall loss was 3.57%. In an otherwise ugly ending to the year, my primary goal of exceeding the S&P’s return was attained marking the 33rd year (of 38) that I’ve been able to make this claim.

Continue reading

Where’s Santa?

What a start to the final month of the year.  At least there is a little something for everyone.  First the CME tripped the first wave of circuit breakers in the futures market.  Then the chartists found the S&P closed the week in a death cross.  Then there’s news of a possible yield curve inversion.  Lest we not forget, the most recent China issue which may or may not even be legal.  While the Huawei issue is unfolding, Lighthizer continues to stir the pot by saying he considers March 1 “a hard deadline” otherwise the delayed tariffs will be imposed.  Hmm … kind of like bringing a gun to a knife fight – or – perhaps the administration really believes that “free and fair trade” is an outgrowth of convoluted negotiations.

If week one is any indication, the traditional “Santa Claus Rally” will be delivering a lump of coal this year.  Being the eternal optimist, I’ll argue Christmas isn’t here yet so I had to take advantage of the sell-off to do a little buying:

  • First, I added to my ETF group.  I accomplished two things with this:
    • As the majority of these are foreign, they are underwater.  Therefore, an ‘average down’ scenario.
    • These all pay December dividends (one quarterly, three semi-annual and one annual) all yet undeclared.  All are now captured.
  • Second I executed a rebalance on a small portion of the portfolio.  I chose a ‘rebalance’ as the fees were lower than the alternatives.  End result being:
    • Sale of BOKF.  I had this issue in two accounts due to a merger, now it’s only in one, with the proceeds and accumulated dividends:
    • Added to ADP, MMM, KIM, FAF as these are underweight target holdings
    • Added to AVNS as they may have received a good price for the division sold to OMI
    • Added to LARK and CASS – missing the ex-date for the stock dividends
    • Added to BR, CNDT, CDK, FHN, JHG, KSU, PJT, WU, XRX – capturing WU’s December dividend

I still have another rebalance queued pending completion of a merger (might be into the new year) and then we return to normal operations.

I also will be selling my OMI – perhaps later in the month to see if Santa really exists!

Ho-Ho-Ho …

Uh-Oh …

In last weeks’ post I shared that effective January, my portfolio will experience two dividend cuts.  Based on how my holdings are structured, the overall impact will be a but a blip.  The greater hit is to my pride.  Other than M&A or spinoff activity, never have I experienced more than one cut in a year.  This, my friends, is with forty years of investing under my belt.  And now we have two announcements in the span of one week.  Also (and perhaps warranted), The Dividend Guy published a piece that essentially says that, “hey, I might have screwed up on OZK but at least I never invested in these dogs”.  Like yours truly.  Happy fifth year to you bud and let’s see if that record holds for another thirty.

Seriously though, the GE and OMI situations can’t be any more different.  The only commonality is the cut.  The Dividend Guy mentions a couple of others as well – which I don’t own.  I continue to be suspicious of the real strength of the overall economy as MAIN also announced a revision to their dividend policy (though not directly a cut).  As an investor looking toward dividends, if this is the beginning of a trend it may be time to pare some of the speculation and migrate towards a more conservative posture.

Meanwhile, in these types of circumstances I feel compelled to share my reasoning and anticipated reactions.

Owens & Minor (OMI)

I have to concur with Dividend Guy’s observation earlier this year that this was “dead money”.  I pretty much reached the same conclusion when I reduced my holdings by about 20% in 2015.  I was content with the minimal dividend growth due to their stellar track record.  The sea of change began in earnest in 2017 with fears of the Amazon effect.  Then a couple of losses to competitors (one being CAH).  Current pressure is hitting them on at least two fronts: the trend for hospitals to in-source and the ability to pass on increasing costs.

Being a patient investor I could accept all of the above and even a frozen dividend as they sort out the issues.  But an unexpected cut of this magnitude leads me to believe there is another shoe to drop.  Obviously I’m not alone in this concern on the earnings call, an analyst from Robert W. Baird & Co. asked the operative question, ” … And how comfortable are you with the covenants at this point on the debt position?”  Last time I saw this question was when Orchids Paper (TIS), another former DGI darling, was in their free fall.  I still like OMI’s logistics but they failed to capitalize on the head start they enjoyed prior to this advantage becoming a commodity. 

OMI accounted for 3.46% of my 2017 dividends received and through 3Q 2018 had been reduced further to 1.89%.  As this is an IRA holding I’m limited in the loss realization but intend to sell after ex-dividend and replace with a Canadian stock (with no tax withheld in IRAs).  I suspect my Q1 2019 numbers will see minor impact in the Y/Y growth.


General Electric (GE)

On GE, Dividend Guy’s analysis matches mine, hands down, purely from a DGI perspective.  GE, however (in my view) never regained their prior glory when the financial crisis exposed their warts.  There is but one reason to have GE in a portfolio and it’s not the dividend, it’s corporate actions – which include things like spinoffs (which were the subject of one of my muses).

As this type of approach is speculative in nature, it pays to be mindful of the weightings.  In my case, GE has ranged from 0.05% – 0.07% of total dividends for the past two years.  My self-imposed maximum for speculation is 1% per issue.  Therefore, I’m well within my targets.

So I consider this similarly to a currency trade where GE stock is the fiat.  The wild card is the exchange rate when the spins are finalized.  Best case is that GE is now fairly or under valued, in which case pending actions will be in my favor.  Worst case I get a unfavorable cost basis that reduces (under current law) my tax basis.  Therefore with minimal downside (unless GE goes belly-up) I intend to increase my GE holdings (once the price settles) to the nearest round lot and await the spins.


Therein lies my strategy for dealing with these events.  I’ll attempt to follow the adage: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!