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Wealth or Income? You Decide.

publication date: Jan 30, 2015
author/source: Brian Nelson, CFA

I know better than to jump up and down in sheer bliss with the S&P 500 (SPY) basing at 2,000. Frankly, the chart looks toppy and “tired,” and with the ongoing series of lower tops, I wouldn’t be surprised that we break down in the coming weeks. Earnings disappointments have been rampant, and following one of the strongest periods of economic expansion in some time during the third quarter (+5%), the pace of US GDP growth in the fourth quarter barely edged out half of the preceding period’s rate of expansion (+2.6%). But that’s yesterday’s news (well, last year’s really), and what concerns me most is that first-quarter GDP will be quite disappointing, even with the stimulus brought about by the precipitous decline in the price of crude oil. “Window dressing” (short covering) in advance of the quarter end helped buoy the oil markets Friday, but one day a trend does not make.

Will we test the October lows? Perhaps. But I do know one thing for sure. If we get there, we will get there in a hurry. Investors are looking for a reason to sell in this overpriced market, while others have fallen asleep at the wheel. Their sense of complacency is reverberating in every overpriced dividend growth stock on the market today. We’re not ready to layer on another series of put options like we did in advance of the market slide in early October, but we’re certainly thinking hard about it. The market, in my view, is hanging on by a thread, or better yet, it is hanging on the Fed’s word, and any hint of an interest rate hike may mark the end of this 6-year bull market from the depths of the panic bottom of March 2009, something I won’t ever forget.

The S&P 500 finished January down ~3.1%. Bring on the tarot card readers and horoscope writers with the old saying, “as goes January, so goes the year.” Obviously, such a statement has little bearing on what actually might happen in 2015. After all, the markets declined in January 2014, and we finished the year materially higher. But for reasons completely unrelated, the January barometer might be correct this year. Must I remind you that the markets have tripled since the Financial Crisis, and a 20% pullback or more would simply be negligible compared to this decade’s vast gains? For those that depend on the Super Bowl indicator, you’ll be rooting for the NFC’s Seattle Seahawks in this Sunday’s big game. I don’t pay too much attention to such nonsense, but such historical trends are entertaining, even if they offer little real value to the analytical mind. Such is the case with most historical data. It’s history.

Apple’s (AAPL) and Altria’s (MO) cadence has been more than welcome for followers of the Dividend Growth portfolio. Even though we were expecting a blow-out calendar fourth-quarter from Apple, it’s always good to be right. The iPhone maker may turn some heads with its dividend increase this year. We also can’t be disappointed with Altria’s fourth-quarter results, which revealed adjusted earnings per share growth of ~16%. One wouldn’t think that cigarette volumes are in permanent decline with such profit growth. That’s just the significance of pricing power, the defining characteristic of only the strongest of businesses.

Altria forecasts 2015 full-year adjusted diluted earnings per share to be in the range of $2.75-$2.80, offering a growth rate of 7%-9% over the most recently-completed year’s performance. Dividend growth investors should anticipate a dividend increase of a similar magnitude. SABMiller (SBMRY) remains the firm’s key, hidden asset that speaks of sustainability to the payout. The liquidation of its stake would only mean more cash on the balance sheet, and a special one-time dividend would almost surely send shares higher, as implied value would turn into realized value.

We’ve talked too much about the slide in crude oil to report any real incremental news since the latest emails updates. The capital spending cuts across the industry have been showing up in droves from the biggest players to the smallest, almost like clockwork. It almost leads me to believe that there has been some signaling in the oil markets, and participants are now acting as one. Implicit collusion is legal, and I’m not sure if anyone can prove coordinated action among players, especially given the telegraphed actions revealed in conference calls across the sector.

In the oil and gas space, we prefer the well-entrenched midstream operates such as Kinder Morgan (KMI) and Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), both of which raised their dividends in the midst of the slide in crude oil. How’s that for reinforcing your confidence in our dividend growth process through thick and thin. Kinder Morgan upped its quarterly payout 2.3%, to $0.45 per share, and Energy Transfer Partners raised its own by 2.1%, to $0.995 per share on a quarterly basis. We were pleased.

The other direct energy play in the Dividend Growth portfolio, Chevron (CVX) has opted to cut capex for 2015 and suspend buybacks, two actions that will support the dividend. Chevron’s head honcho John Watson has stressed that the dividend is the company’s “highest priority.” We like what we heard, but we’ll still be watching its financials like a hawk. We continue to believe Chevron is best-positioned among the majors given its comparatively lower net debt position.

If I haven’t convinced you to pay attention to the Dividend Cushion ratio of firms in your portfolio by now, I have failed. I received an email from an ex-subscriber that mentioned that she lost income using another service (emphasis on ex). Sometimes it’s hard for me to fathom why members cancel, only to be suckered in by someone else’s superficial prose lacking any substantial cash-flow-based work. Penny wise, pound foolish? For those that keep our archived Dividend Growth Newsletters, in the January 2015 edition on page 12, in the list of ‘Dividend Yields to Avoid,’ you’ll find Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF) and Peabody Energy (BTU). Both of them cut their dividends since the last update.

The Dividend Cushion ratio is incredible, and I really mean it, though I shouldn’t act so surprised since it is based on forward-looking cash-flow based analysis, the core of what we do at Valuentum. Spread the word about this fantastic tool. It will only help investors of all types.

All-in, your baseline expectations should be a multi-month downtrend in the equity markets. Like the wind blowing fiercely in from left field, even the hardest hit balls that otherwise would be homeruns on mild, sunny afternoons, in such a turbulent environment, they become just long fly outs.

Deciding what to do to prepare for the rest of 2015 depends on whether you’re after wealth creation or income growth. No stock is ever a perpetual buy and hold, and Bill Gross almost has it correct: “the time for (excessive) risk taking has passed.” I added “excessive.” This year could be a difficult year for the equity markets, so plan accordingly. 

You are. You’re reading this. Don’t let complacency be your downfall. Stay engaged. 

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