Why Dividends Matter

I’m old school, and I like my dividends.

Yes, I know. I’m being hopelessly stodgy. Dividends are almost inconsequential these days compared to the returns realized from rising stock prices. Since bottoming out in early 2009, the S&P 500 has exploded higher at a compound annual growth rate of over 15% per year and is up over 300% cumulatively.

What’s a couple of percent in dividends when you’re looking at those kinds of capital gains?

Furthermore, very few sexy, high-growth tech companies pay dividends. Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet (Google) certainly don’t, and none have immediate plans to start.

But it’s important to keep a few things in mind. To start, the 15% annualized returns we’ve seen over the past decade in the S&P 500 are by no means normal. The long-term term historical average is closer to 10%.

And mean reversion being what it is, having a long period of above-average returns means we need to have a long stretch of lower-than-normal returns to get us back to the long-term average.

Not even the glassiest-eyed permabull seriously believes returns of 15% per year can continue forever.

Let’s slice the numbers a little differently.

The returns you achieve are ultimately a product of the price you pay. When you buy them cheaply, you put yourself in position to enjoy higher-than-average returns. When you overpay, you set yourself up to be disappointed.

Well, the S&P 500 currently trades at a cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio of 29.9. That implies it is priced to deliver losses of about 2% per year over the next eight years, assuming the market returns to its long-term average valuation.

Now, maybe we get lucky and valuations remain at historically elevated levels. Hey, stranger things have happened, and there might have even been a legitimate justification for it in lower interest rates and stricter accounting standards.

But even assuming valuations remain 25% to 50% higher than their long-term averages, we’d still be looking at returns in the ballpark of just 1% to 3% per year.

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