... I thought was an appropriate title for this piece as we saw the launch this week of a new film version of Dad's Army in which no doubt the latest incarnation of Corporal Jones will utter his famous catch phrase. So what's that got to do with investing I can hear you thinking. Well the don't panic phrase is a good one to try and remember when we are experiencing volatile markets such as those seen this January and since equity markets, with the benefit of hindsight, topped out last spring / summer.
Now some readers may be younger than me and indeed you may have only got interested in the stock market in recent years when it seemed like it only ever went up. While some will be older than me and have seen it all before no doubt. But it is worth remembering that equity markets only go up about 60% of the time and in a bear market which is defined as a 20% drop from a top, they can and do go down by 30% to 50% or more as we saw as recently as 2008/9. In extreme cases when certain markets are unwinding from bubble conditions they can and do usually fall by around 80% or more from the peak - think .com stocks back in the early 2000's for a recent example of that.
Having said all that investing in equities for the long term (10 to 20 years) has in the past delivered decent real (after inflation) returns in the region of 5 to 6% per annum which is always worth remembering, but whether you achieve these returns is largely dictated by the price or rating you pay at the outset. Swings in ratings both up and down help to drive secular bull and bear periods in markets which seem to have lasted on average around 17 to 18 years. It seems to me that having had a 17 year or so re-rating which peaked out in 2000 with the .com bubble, we have remained since then in a secular bear market as the FTSE has failed to make a decisive break into new high ground. This has not however precluded big swings a profitable period within that along the way, which is also in common with history. Any way if you want to read more about the theory of these long cycles I would recommend a book Stock Cycles by By Michael J. Alexander - as featured in my Resources list of recommended books and other useful things. Included on there is a link to Crestmont Research - which is really useful resource for swatting up on market ratings history and secular bull and bear markets.
Aside from that I read a good piece on AAII.com recently which included some useful thoughts on a more rational approach to portfolio valuation. This basically talks about thinking like an owner as Warren Buffet talks about and having in mind a fair PE rating for the stocks you own. It suggests you then compare the rating that Mr Market is putting on your stocks and decide whether that is under or over valued and act accordingly rather than being influenced by noisy share price movements along the way. Seem quite sensible to me and well worth a read if you have been panicking about recent price moves on stocks in your portfolio.
Now for me the other longer term thing I focus on, as you know, is the income you can get from the dividends and compounding those. In a similar way to the article above, by focussing on these and what you think might be a fair or minimum yield you would expect on your stocks, you can also take a longer term perspective. Indeed it is also noticeable that in the past, although no guarantees for the future, that dividends have tended to hold up a lot better than prices during bear markets. This was evidence most recently in the 2008/9 bear market and subsequently when the UK stock market fell by around 50% but according to data from Capita (see page 6 of report) total dividend payments only fell by 14.3% between 2008 and 2010. They have since 2010 gone onto rise by 49% which represents an exceptional rate of growth of 8.3% per annum over the five years since then. I say exceptional as in the long run real dividends have tended to grow by more like 1 to 2% in real terms and indeed if you look at all the data in the Capita report on page 6 and include their forecast of a small fall in dividends for this year then the growth rate over the whole 9 years is likely to be closer to 3.5% per annum which in real terms will be closer to the long run average.
On the subject of dividends and their volatility versus the market prices there was an interesting look at the history of this in the US at A wealth of common sense - called The Incredible growing dividend. Now while this was US based data it did help to highlight why I like to focus on growing dividends and compounding them over time. Further to that there was an update last year to research from the value house Brandes Institute called: Income as the Source of Long Term Returns. This looked at the importance of dividends in the long term, the dividend yield gap versus bonds and also the stability of dividends in the longer term. Indeed they found that the volatility of the dividend streams themselves was a very small fraction (under one-twentieth) of the volatility of stock price movements.
From this report I particularly liked the lessons from the following extracts:
The message in Exhibit 7 is clear: higher dividend-paying stocks delivered higher total returns. While this was partly due to the dividend return, it is also notable that on a price-only basis, the top three quintiles of dividend-paying stocks had higher price and total returns than quintiles 4 and 5, as well as the non-dividend-paying stocks.
We have stressed the long-term nature of this research. However, many investors still have concerns over short-term price volatility. Did a focus on higher yielding stocks cause exposure to extreme stock price fluctuations? Again, the answer from our research is “No.” In Exhibit 8, we look at volatility of both stock prices and dividends within the quintile universe. Volatility of stock price returns was lowest for the highest dividend yield stocks, and increased steadily as dividend yields declined. So investors in the top quintiles received both higher returns (Exhibit 7) and lower volatility (Exhibit 8). My emphasis on the last bit there as that is as close to investing Nirvana as you can get I would say. I would also highlight that they also observed:
We have long held that paying excessive attention to short-term price movements is a behavioural error that can lead investors to make bad investment decisions. The data in this research suggests that investors might do much better to focus on their portfolio’s income stream as it develops over time. Exhibit 8 shows that the volatility of that dividend income stream was a very small fraction (under one-twentieth) of the volatility of stock price movements. To the extent that volatility causes investors to worry, switching attention from price volatility to dividend volatility might ease that worry substantially.
Summary & Conclusion
So definitely worth focussing on the income and thinking long term to avoid worrying about short term market volatility and making behavioural errors as a result I would say. Having said that though in the short term it is worth bearing in mind the Capita forecasts and the suggestions of others that dividends are more vulnerable now as levels of cover in the UK have been run down to low levels, so I suspect the outlook for dividend growth from the market overall may not be as good going forward in the short term, but do try and think long term and don't panic.
This is especially obvious in the UK given the concentration in income from the top 5 stocks which represent 33% of the income while the top 15 represent over 50%. As the top 5 all have question marks over the sustainability of their dividends, this is worth bearing in mind if you are investing in tracker funds.
That's why I prefer to invest and seek out companies able to grow their dividends in a diversified fashion so my income is not dependant to a large extent on a handful of companies and should therefore give me a growing income stream to live off of and compound over the long term as hopefully I might have another 20 to 30 years on this planet if I'm lucky. Or as the Brandes Institute put it:
We believe this research illustrates that the industry acceptance of five years as a long-term investment horizon underestimates the potential of reinvesting and compounding income. By reinvesting the income contribution of investment returns, investors can leverage the power of compound interest. Investors should not let recent market experience distort their perspective, and particularly should avoid preconceptions that income is less important than capital gains in its contribution to total equity returns. Income has served as a significant component of returns, and the combination of reinvested income and capital appreciation historically has presented the best option for long-term investors to realize optimal returns.
Cheers have a great weekend, whatever you are up to. Finally to bring the post to a close and to bring it back full circle to the title - as it is the weekend and it has been a while since I inflicted any music on you - here's a song from a new band The Brothers Osbourne called - Stay a little longer which seems appropriate in the context of this post.