Why a Popping Dividend Bubble Is Great News for Long-Term Investors

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Last week, our award-winning columnist Morgan Housel penned a piece exploring the possibility of a dividend bubble. "Just as investors ran blindly into subprime bonds five years ago in search of yield, they're running blindly, carelessly into dividend stocks today," says Housel.

I don't disagree with him on that. In the aftermath of the recession and in such a low-interest-rate environment, dividend stocks have been all the rage.

But Housel's conclusion is this: "The more I look, the more it becomes apparent that stocks known for their dividends trade at unfortunate valuations that could leave investors disappointed." In the short to medium term, he's probably right. But if you're investing with a decades-long time horizon, I think this could be the best news you could hear.

Let me explain why.

The case of Altria
When Wharton professor of economics Jeremy Siegel went back and studied which companies produced the best returns from 1925 onward, he found something surprising. "I was frankly shocked that Philip Morris [now Altria (NYS: MO) ] would be the number-one stock," Siegel said. "I would just never have guessed that. I would have said, 'Maybe IBM.'"

What Siegel found was two factors at play: The first was that investors often paid too much for growth stocks -- even ones that paid dividends. Although companies like IBM crushed competitors in revenue and earnings growth, their shareholders still underperformed Altria's. This was largely because shares of IBM were already priced for such growth.

This, I believe, is the crux of Housel's argument -- that paying for dividend stocks now will disappoint investors because they're paying far too much for them. I don't disagree with him -- dividend stocks are more expensive now than they have been in a while.

But the second factor that Siegel found at play was this: Depressed share prices allowed shareholders of Altria to accumulate more and more shares through dividend reinvestment programs, or DRIPs, than shareholders of other companies. In the case of Altria, the depressed share prices were largely due to fears of losses associated with lawsuits regarding the link between smoking and lung cancer.

It's in this second factor that I see reason for hope. If there's a dividend bubble that pops, but companies are easily able to continue paying the yields that they currently are, long-term shareholders (and I mean 10- to 20-year shareholders) will be accumulating more and more shares through DRIPs -- more cheaply -- than they would if prices remained the same as they are today.

Consider the hypothetical case of Philip Morris International (NYS: PM) . In our first scenario, the company's share price and dividend payout -- which is about 3.8% today -- stays exactly the same for the next 20 years. In the second scenario, the absolute dividend payout by the company remains the same, but the share price dips 25% immediately after buying shares and stays there for the next 20 years, before coming up again to the same level they are today.

Here's what the results would look like.

 Total Return
Scenario One 110%
Scenario Two 167%

Source: Yahoo! Finance, author's calculations.

Of course, there are two important things to notice here. First, there's no way Philip Morris' stocks would follow such a neat pattern. And second, this assumes that the price of Philip Morris' stock would recover -- over the course of 20 years -- all that it might lose in the event of a dividend bubble popping.

But even discounting these assumptions, I think the hypothetical situation shows the power of holding dividend stocks when prices are depressed -- you simply accumulate more and more shares than you otherwise would.

Some stocks to consider
What Altria had going for it was simple: It was producing a highly addictive product with a powerful brand that had repeat customers. For this reason, both Altria and Philip Morris would represent good candidates moving forward.

But I've got some other choices for those wanting to stay away from cigarettes. Working with the same characteristics, I think the following three companies could offer excellent prospects for the 10- to 20-year investor.

Company

Dividend Yield

Coca-Cola (NYS: KO) 2.8%
Proctor and Gamble (NYS: PG) 3.3%
AT&T (NYS: T) 5.9%

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Coca-Cola and P&G both have some of the strongest brands in the world, as well as millions of repeat customers who will continue buying their products during good economic times and bad. I have little doubt that these two companies will continue paying out their dividends, as their payout ratios are both 60% or lower. All a drop in price would mean -- for the long-term investor -- is a chance to accumulate more shares through dividend reinvestments.

AT&T, on the other hand, has a much higher yield, which reflects a higher level of risk. The telecom industry is rapidly changing with the shift from landlines to cellular, and the possible encroachment of smartphone makers into the industry. Though the picture is a bit cloudier, I believe the company will still be around -- and paying dividends -- 20 years from now. With a yield like it has now, that's enough to convince me that it'd be a buy.

I'll be adding all three of these companies to my All-Star profile so you can track how they're doing. And if you're interested in learning about more rock-solid dividends, I suggest you check out our special free report on just that topic. Inside, you'll get the name of 11 dividend-paying companies our analysts think will outperform the market for years to come. Get your copy today, absolutely free!

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Brian Stoffel owns shares of Coca-Cola. You can follow him on Twitter at @TMFStoffel.The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines, Altria Group, Philip Morris International, and Coca-Cola. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Philip Morris International, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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