My most recent trip to Calgary gave me a welcome chance
to catch up with friends and colleagues in Cow Town's oil and gas sector. I found
out about new projects, investigated companies of interest, and came away
with an improved feel for the current state of affairs – what's hot,
what's not, and why.
I also came away reminded of one of the dangers that
lurk within troubled markets – and today's markets are troubled. Since
mid-March, North America's exchanges have struggled, with the Dow Jones
losing all the momentum that had propelled a spectacular 17% gain over the
previous five months while the Toronto Stock Exchange also sputtered and
slid, turning downward to lose its slight gains from January and February.
Fundamental economic problems remain unresolved in the United States and
Europe, while uncertainty grows over China's ability to control inflation and
The outlook from here is not great. When markets turn
bearish, investment strategies often turn toward income stocks, and rightly
so: if market malaise is expected to keep share prices in check, dividends
become a very good place to look for profits. But whenever a particular
characteristic – such as a good dividend yield – becomes
desirable, it also becomes dangerous. The sad truth is that scammers and
profiteers jump aboard the bandwagon and start making offers that seem too
good to refuse.
It was just such an offer that reminded me of this
danger. In the question-and-answer period following my talk in Calgary at the
Cambridge House Resource Conference, an audience member asked my opinion of a
new, private company that was offering a 14.7% monthly dividend yield.
Yes, you read that right: a 14.7% monthly yield, from a
new, private, natural gas company.
I had met with this company the previous day and in
that meeting the slick individuals who promised such glorious dividends got
stumped by some pretty simple questions. When asked what the company's
twelve-month payout ratio was, the individual responded with, "Our
working interest varies between 25% and 70%." Perhaps he didn't hear
my question, I thought, so I tried again. This time he stated that they
pay a 14.7% dividend monthly… again, not answering the question. An
interaction like this should set your spider-senses tingling. A few questions
later it was obvious that they had no clue what they were talking about or
trying to sell.
So, back to the very pleasant older man who asked the
question at the end of my talk. My answer –
which applies to almost everything in life – was this: if it sounds too
good to be true, it probably is. If Apple, with highly robust cash flows and
$98 billion in the bank, is only paying a 1.8% annual dividend, why would a
small natural gas start-up be able to pay almost 40%? For a company to
guarantee a return of that magnitude is completely ridiculous.
At the end of the talk I responded to many questions,
but the highlight of the show for me came when the nice old man who asked me
about the 14.7% dividend came up with his sweet old wife. They wanted to
shake my hand and thank me. Those slick guys promoting that private stock had
convinced this couple that the dividends from and return on this investment
would solve their income issues in their retirement years, and they were
ready to put down a fair chunk of cash. Thankfully, because I was quite open
and vocal with my opinion that this private company was ridiculous fluff, the
couple stayed away.
Ridiculous or not, those promises are out there.
Unfortunately, promoters trying to cash in on investors' desires for the
relatively security of dividends will promote these "deals" more
and more as the market turns negative. It's just another unsavory characteristic
of rough markets – preachers come out and make all kinds of impossible
Thankfully, a few bad apples don't have to spoil the
If you agree with the Casey consensus that markets will
remain volatile and generally negative over the next year, dividend stocks
are a good way to get paid for taking on the risk of investing in a market
that climbed notably through the winter without a lot of good reason. If the
market from here generally moves sideways, non-dividend stocks will leave
your portfolio stuck in place. If you buy dividend payers and reinvest the
gains for further dividends, you can still profit from a bear market.
In addition, data suggest that top dividend payers have
a history of outperformance, both in the US and globally. It makes sense:
only a company with good net earnings can sustain a good dividend, so the two
go hand in hand.
But the companies I'm talking about here are huge
corporations with established revenues and proven track records. Moreover,
good dividends and strong performance are correlated – there is no
causality. The fact that the top dividend payers often perform well cannot be
taken to mean that paying a high dividend ensures that a company will
For starters, take dividend yield. A company's dividend
yield is its annual dividend payout divided by its share price. A high yield
means big payouts relative to the costs of buying shares, so at first blush a
high yield might seem like a good thing. But be careful: when stock prices
fall, dividend yields rise. That means some of the worst stocks out there
offer some of the highest dividend yields. Of course, such stocks are value
traps – trying to recoup your initial investment will be like trying to
catch a falling knife, and the dividend payments you banked will be of little
comfort for the cuts you get on the way.
Then there's the basic point that a high dividend does
not mean much if a company cannot continue to pay it in the future. Cash flow
and profits should give you an idea of whether there is enough money around
to sustain the promised dividend. For a more informed look at that
relationship, check out a company's quick ratio, which
compares liquid assets and current liabilities.
Those bits of information are the tip of the iceberg
when it comes to researching how to choose the best dividend-paying stocks
for your portfolio. That is not my goal here today. My goal is to remind you
that, in investing, vigilance is always key and
never more important than at the start of a downturn.
(While it appears the current downturn in the markets
could be prolonged, there are promising profit opportunities in energy
today… if you know what to look for. The 2012 Energy Forecast
will help you do just that, and right now you can get it for free.)
When things have been going well for a little while (or
a long while), many investors stop asking the tough questions. Wanting to
believe that the markets will keep climbing and the money taps keep flowing,
they pretend downside risks don't matter. A usually cautious investor might
accept that a company with an early-stage uranium project in remote Mongolia
can access the millions of dollars needed for a pre-feasibility study, assume
the price of uranium will keep rising and make a marginal deposit economic,
or take a management team at its word that a project will receive regulatory
approval. (If a management team ever assures you of project approval before
it has happened, be very careful – good management teams never put the
cart before the horse, and permitting any resource project anywhere in the
world is a lengthy and costly matter.)
And those assumptions often work out, but only as long
as the bull market continues. As soon as Mr. Market stumbles, yesterday's
assumptions become today's value traps. Making matters worse, some promoters
live to profit off investor mistakes and are always looking to capitalize on
shifts in the marketplace. If a slowing market generates a shift toward
dividend-paying stocks, these profiteers will start promising double-digit
dividend yields, representing an appealing combination of yesterday's
easy-money attitude with today's "income, please" perspective.
Traps like these are avoidable, but only if you get a
handle on your greed. We all invest to make money, but greed – the
desire to make lots of quick, easy money – will lead you into one value
trap after another. Instead, you have to lead with your head. Before buying a
stock, make sure you know why you're buying it and what you plan to do with
it. Is it a long-term hold, with a proven management team and a well-planned
strategy? Is it a takeover candidate – and if so, who are the contending
acquirers and what is the timeline? Or is it a quick flip, based on a rising
commodity price or an area play? In any scenario, do you have your exit
mapped out? Is there enough liquidity to make a speedy exit?
Some scams and value traps are relatively easy to spot,
such as the promise of a 14.7% monthly dividend. Others are much harder to
avoid. More generally, investing is complicated and fast-paced, and every
decision carries the weight of your hard-earned dollars. It is much easier to
bear that weight with help from an expert.