Dividend Growth Investing

One of the new blogs I’ve been enjoying of late has been the site of a lively debate on investing for dividends.  Dividend Mantra presents a guest post there on his Dividend Growth Investing approach.  Blog reader Dan, in turn, makes some very astute observations.

I, of course, joined in.  You can follow it all here:


While you’re there it’s worth checking out Mr. Money Mustache’s other offerings.

My last post there gives my view:

(Note:  well my intention was to also post this over there but it seems Mr. MM has closed the comments on that entry.  Ah well, at least I got this blog post out of it. :))

Dividend Mantra, Dan….

Thanks for the lively debate.  For those readers with some basic knowledge it has been  fun to sift thru the conversation.  However, for those who are new to this whole investing thing, they are likely more confused than ever with the conflicting claims.

At the risk of stirring up the dust again, I believe it is important that beginning investors be very clear on what is accurate information here.

Basically Dan makes three key points:

  1. With vanishingly rare exception Index Investing bests all other methods.
  2. Receiving dividends in a taxable account is a taxable event.
  3. The payment of dividends represents a reduction in the company’s value that precisely matches the amount paid.

In each of these he is absolutely correct.

  1. With vanishingly rare exception Index Investing bests all other methods.

Far and away this is the most important point.  You can’t consistently pick winning stocks.  I can’t either.  The vast majority of pros can’t.  Warren Buffet has, but suggesting that his act is easy or even possible to follow is simply wrong and dangerous.

Here’s my take on why:

Why I can’t pick winning stocks and you can’t either

Here’s my take on what works:

What we own and why we own it

Dan said:  “I strongly believe the research of the last 40 years has shown that any benefit achieved through active stock research and picking is due to sheer luck – not due to any true ability on the part of the stock picker.”

This is not just what you believe, Dan, it is absolute fact.  The research is stunningly clear and precise on this.

2. Receiving dividends in a taxable account is a taxable event.

Every penny of dividends you receive in a taxable account is taxable in the year you receive them.  If you believe this not to be true simply don’t report them on your 1040 this year.  You will shortly receive a private invitation from the IRS to explain your error in detail.

You may not share Dan’s concern with paying these taxes or be interested in the ideas he offers to gain more control over how and when you pay taxes on your investment gains.  Indeed it is my opinion that taxes are not necessarily the first consideration in investment strategy.  But if you hold in taxable accounts investments in companies that pay dividends you will give up a portion of those to your Uncle Sam.

This is an absolute fact.

3. The payment of dividends represents a reduction in the company’s value that precisely matches the amount paid.

This, too, is an absolute fact and I think Dan did a sound job of explaining it.  Indeed I have been puzzling over why people seem to be stubbing their toe on it.  Perhaps it is simply a bit counter intuitive.  Let me take a stab at clarifying it a bit.  Maybe Newton’s Law of Gravity can help.

As we all know, Newton was the first to describe (not discover: it was always there) gravity and its principles.   In short, any object with mass exerts an attractive force on other objects of mass.  The strength of that force is directly proportional to the mass of the object.

In the classic story an apple falling to the earth illustrates gravity in obvious action.  What might be less obvious is that the apple exerts gravitational force as well as the earth, just on a far smaller scale due to its far smaller mass.

So if, as Newton’s law claims, apples have gravity why aren’t two apples sitting on a flat table drawn together?   Two reasons.  One, gravity is a very weak force.  (Consider the entire gravitational force of the planet isn’t strong enough to pull an apple from the tree until it is fully ripe and the tree releases it.)  Two, there are other, stronger, forces at work on the apples.  The friction of the table surface.  The resistance of the air between the apples.  The much larger earth’s gravity trying to pull them down thru the table.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at KO (Coke Cola) and the example of its dividend, letting KO represent the Earth and its dividend the apple.

Like the Earth, KO is huge:  159Billion in market cap, 171B in Enterprise Value, 46B in annual sales.

Like the apple, KO’s dividend is relatively small.  At .47 per share paid to 2.27B shareholders it is just over one billion dollars.  That is real money leaving the company and that lost value is precisely the same as the dividend itself.  However, just like the gravity of an apple is hard to perceive in the shadow of the earth, so too it can be easy to miss the lost value to KO of the paid dividend against the scale of the company itself.  But the loss is no less real for it.

This is why traders pay close attention to the ex-dividend date (this is the date that determines who gets the dividend if the stock is being sold.  Before it the div goes to the seller, after to the buyer.  BTW, this is not the day the div is paid.) of stocks.  The value of the stock will be affected by precisely the amount of the dividend paid.

But wait!  If this is true, how come sometimes a stock price will rise on the ex-div date?  Or maybe fall even further than the dividend would call for?  For the same reason two apples on a table aren’t drawn together.  It’s not that Newton was wrong, it is that other, stronger forces are at work.

In the case of stocks those forces are largely traders working with many variables, only one of which is the dividend payout.

Like everything else in life, there is no “free lunch” when it comes to dividends.  When KO pays out that billion dollars in dividends, that is a billion dollars that is gone forever.  It is a billion dollars they could have used otherwise.  Could they have wasted it?  Of course.  Or they might have deployed it to great advantage creating more value per share than the .47 they paid out.

Basically there are four things (at least that I can think of off the top of my head) that companies can do with their profits.  They can pay them out as dividends.  They can use them to build the company.  They can buy back their own shares.  They can buy other compaies. They can sit on them waiting for opportunities.   See I came up with a fifth!

Which is best?  Depends.  On the management.  On the company.  On the industry.  On the economy.  To name a few.  But none are magic.

Those are the facts.

So, what about Dividend Mantra’s Dividend Growth Investing approach?  I think he hits the value it offers best when he says:

“I live in a different world-the real world. Where stock prices move up and down, are at times overvalued and undervalued, sometimes react stronger to dividend payouts and sometimes completely ignore dividend payouts. This is a world where a company can grow earnings by 100% and see the stock price stay flat, where the stock price can go up and down by 10% or more for no apparent reasons. It’s because of these drastic up and down gyrations in my world that I invest in dividend growth stocks. The extreme gyrations do not affect my steadily rising dividend checks. It will, however, affect people who sell shares for income. They’ll have to sell more or less shares to net a desired dollar amount depending on the day, and they are completely subject to the crazy market that operates in my world.”

In other words, it provides a smoother ride.  As far as it goes, this is true.  Companies that pay dividends tend to be larger, more stable operations.  Management is loath to declare dividends and then have to pull them back.  Although, make no mistake, this can and does happen and the crash of 2008 was filled with companies forced to cut or eliminate their dividends.

The price you pay is lower potential growth.

Some observations:

  1. These same large stable companies tend to grow at a slower pace.
  2.   You will pay taxes on those dividends.
  3.   If you implement this approach with individual stocks you take on all problems of point #1 above.  This is easier and safer:  https://personal.vanguard.com/us/funds/snapshot?FundId=0602&FundIntExt=INT
  4. Or this:  https://personal.vanguard.com/us/funds/snapshot?FundId=0623&FundIntExt=INT
  5. Focusing on dividends is trading growth for income.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this blog, while I am a firm believer in indexing I haven’t entirely given up on trying to outperform with a few individual stocks.  As I’ve said, I’m a slow learner.

Actually, this year my efforts have done pretty well.  You might be interested to know that this was due to a focus on high-dividend stocks.  I also had a nicely profitable short term Netflix trade, but that’s an outlier.

As is typical after a crash, since 2008 growth stocks have been shunned and value (dividend) stocks have been the stars.  I’ve been riding that wave.  I’ve even been doing it in my (sorry Dan :)) taxable account.  I wanted the tax loss if it had gone against me.

But the wheel, as it always does, continues to turn.  Value will fade and growth will rise again.  Over time, as the research shows, the difference in return between them negligible.

If you’ve read this far you know I think there are better choices.  But if the dividend approach is comfortable for you and you go in with your eyes open and willing to accept the downsides, it can get you where you want to be.

But do yourself a favor. Track and measure your performance against an index fund like VTSAX. If you are going to all the effort picking individual stocks (dividend or otherwise) it only makes sense to see if it is paying off for you.

Far more important:  Spend less than you earn, invest the surplus and avoid debt.



Important Resources:

  • Vanguard.com
  • Personal Capital* is a great free tool to manage and evaluate the investments you have, including costs. At a glance you’ll see what’s working and what you might want to change. Very cool.
  • Betterment* is my recommendation for hands-off investors who prefer a DIFM (Do It For Me) approach. It is also a great tool for reaching short-term savings goals. Here is my Betterment Review
  • YNAB* has the best budgeting tools going and just might be the Best Place to Work Ever
  • Republic Wireless* is my $10 a month phone plan. My daughter is in South East Asia and is on the $5 a month plan. We talk whenever can and for ever long we please. My RW Review tells you how.
  • Tuft & Needle* helps me sleep at night. A very cool company and a great product.

*These are affiliate links and should you chose to do business with them, this blog will earn a small commission.

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  1. Posted January 14, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Spot on with this write-up, I actually suppose this web site needs far more consideration. I’ll most likely be again to learn far more, thanks for that info.

  2. Posted February 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Stock price always reflects company’s ability to grow earnings per share. If you go back 50 plus years, you will see that stocks that have outperformed the market have always had spectacular earnings growth. So, one can pick a winner — at least until growth slows. :)

    You have a great blog. Keep it up!

    • Posted February 19, 2012 at 12:02 am | Permalink

      Hi Shilpan….

      Nice to see you over here, and welcome. I appreciate the kind words.

      “…at least until the growth slows.” Ah, there’s the rub. :)

      • Reido
        Posted May 26, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        I got caught by this little “after thought” when I bought SUN microsystems in 1998 because its earnings had been growing immensely and obviously would continue to grow… Oops…

        Good luck to you and I hope you have better luck than I did!

  3. Dividend King
    Posted March 16, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    I would just like to follow up on the whole dividend growth idea. I too am a dividend growth investor and will be an index investor, but I have different goals for each. For my DG portfolio I seek income growth from my assets to one day exceed my expenses, I am not looking for the 10% or so average annual return provided by the market. This will help me to reach my goals of early retirement and because I plan to retire, or not have to work for money, before the age of 59.5 I keep these securities in a taxable account. When I start my first “real job”, as I’m still in college, I’ll use index investing for my 401k and Roth IRA contributions as they focus on growing my asset base without the unsystematic risk of individual securities. DG investing helps an investor receive income from their investments without having to sell shares whereas index investing investors would be required to sell off their shares in a fund if they require more income than the current yield.

  4. Posted October 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Collins,

    If one were to go ahead with either VDAIX or VHDYX (the two links you’ve given above), which one would you suggest is the better option?

    These are the differences (or “sameness”) I could find:

    ER – 0.20% for both
    Price – $28.89 for VDAIX and $23.82 for VHDYX [pretty close; but shouldn’t matter?]
    Asset class – both US stocks
    Returns since inception – 6.59% for VDAIX and 4.96% for VHDYX [see an advantage here]
    # of stocks – 146 for VDAIX and 390 for VHDYX [does this make the latter “safer” because of the broader base?]


    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted October 28, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Hi Krishanu….

      With the caveat that I’m not a dividend investor and wouldn’t invest my money in that fashion….

      Given that choice I’d go with VHDYX simply because the dividend yield is 3.01% v. 2.01% and if you are going to do this, yield is the point.

      But that said, let’s explore your points further:

      —ER – 0.20% for both.
      So, a non-issue, but 4x the ER of VTSAX.

      —Price – $28.89 for VDAIX and $23.82 for VHDYX [pretty close; but shouldn’t matter?]
      The price of shares is meaningless. It is simply based on the number of shares outstanding divided into the value of the assets on any given day. So, as you’ve guessed, this doesn’t matter.

      —Asset class – both US stocks.
      The same and so another non-issue.

      —Returns since inception – 6.59% for VDAIX and 4.96% for VHDYX [see an advantage here]
      Now this is the interesting one, and it makes my point in the post above. The best returns come from the lower yielding fund. This is because VDAIX looks at factors beyond yield. Once you do that, you find better returns and the key reason dividend investing falls short.
      Now consider that VTSAX yields 1.97%, within spitting distance of the 2.01% or VDAIX. Plus VTSAX has soundly outperformed over the last five years:

      —# of stocks – 146 for VDAIX and 390 for VHDYX [does this make the latter “safer” because of the broader base?]
      Yep. And VTSAX with over 3000 has an even broader base.

      Make sense?

      • Posted October 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Makes absolute sense!

        No arguments over VTSAX, I was just curious. When I started reading this post, I went over to Vanguard and was playing around to find how many dividend index funds they have. VDAIX and VHDYX are the two I found, and was lo and behold, you mention these two very funds later in your post! I was pleasantly surprised.

  5. Stephen
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I stumbled on dividend mantra through the MoneyPlan SOS podcast (which I stumbled on trying to find something to supplement the planet money and freakonomics podcasts).

    Anyways, after perusing his site I was curious and was hoping to get more information from someone I trusted. So I came over here and searched your site for dividend mantra and was pleasantly surprised to see you had written an article evaluating his post at MMM (which incidentally is where I found your stock series a couple months ago).

    Well after all that useless backstory I guess it’s time to get to the point. I’m a big fan of the arguments you made in the stock series and have almost everything in VTI and plan to leave it there for a good long while (I turn 30 in April). My question was whether this dividend growth investing strategy might be worthwhile in later years when I’m balancing growth with preservation. I recall your discussion of mixing stocks, bonds, and REITs at that time but was just curious if this might also have a place as it “offers a smoother ride”

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Hi Stephen…

      Welcome, and thanks for the kind words. Glad you found your way over here.

      Nope. The drawbacks to the DGI approach remain regardless of when you might implement it:

      1. Stock picking is inherently a losing strategy.
      2. Dividend stocks represent one narrow type of company.
      3. Like any stock picking strategy, DGI requires lots of time and effort, only to be…
      4. …constantly outperformed by simple indexing.

      Dividend Mantra, who by the way I consider a friend, loves researching and analyzing his stock picks. While I applaud doing things one loves in this case, because of the under performance, it becomes a very expensive indulgence.

      For anybody who enjoys analyzing and choosing stocks, as I did at one time, my advice would be to set aside 5-10% of your money for this and go ahead and indulge.

      But leave the heavy lifting of wealth building to index funds.

  6. Betty
    Posted May 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I read this post when it was first published. I enjoyed it then and,
    again today. :)

    I needed a refresher course. :)

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted May 19, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Betty…

      I have to say it is wonderful to hear folks say they find the posts here useful and interesting enough to read more than once. :)

  7. Posted June 13, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    This feels like a what’s first the chicken or the egg type of question. It’s like paying off a mortgage while not everyone agrees, it sure does make the person happy who pays it off and gives investors out there reason to say you are crazy for such actions.

    I think the reason many use dividends as their financial independence goal is it is entirely passive and provides a pretty strict number to keep track of regardless of the price of the share. If I have 100 shares of Coke, I will get $47, versus the investory saying if I have 100 shares of Non-Dividend Paying Coke(example only), that you will need $500K or $600K, which makes the number more of a moving target especially in down swings.

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted June 13, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      Welcome ES…

      I think you have put your finger exactly on the appeal. :)

  8. Chris
    Posted June 25, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Wow — that MMM post — It’s rare to see such a coherent takedown of an idea in the comments section. Dan (whoever he is) is clearly on top of his game. Kudos. I’d really like to see more of his writings.

  9. Posted April 25, 2015 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Jim – I realize this is an old post but still a very relevant one.
    I had some doubts on Dividend investing and I am glad I came across your post to read a detailed analysis (as always) backing up your opinion. Dividend investing to me is best summarized by one of your points, “It is trading income for growth”.
    I can see the interest in a ‘retired’ situation to generate passive income, but I can’t think this would be more efficient than selling shares when cash is needed. Of course it does make it easier to generate a stable and ‘hands-off’ passive income, which is an appealing characteristic.
    Very informative post, thank you sir.

    • jlcollinsnh
      Posted April 26, 2015 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Thanks TMM!

      This is an old one, but it still pulls a lot of traffic. So many are out there touting dividend investing, some folks seem to appreciate having a counter point.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Stocks — Part XXII: Stepping away from REITs on May 27, 2014 at 2:57 am

    […] while I like to receive dividends as much as the next guy, for reasons I lay out in the post Dividend Growth Investing I am not a fan of pursuing them as a portfolio strategy. Suffice to say the dividends were a very […]

  • By Picking Winning Stocks on July 19, 2014 at 9:32 am

    […] Dividend Growth Investing […]

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