Friday, August 9, 2013

What I Look For in Dividend Stocks

My investing strategy entails purchasing high quality dividend growth stocks. The goal of my investing portfolio is to purchase stocks that will raise dividends in the future. The stream of dividend income will be used to fund my early retirement, making be completely financial independent. The dividend growth will protect my income stream against inflation.

But what exactly am I looking for in stocks. These are a few specific characteristics I'm looking for when researching stocks.

Strong competitive advantage
The first thing I'm looking for are strong competitive advantages. This is what Warren Buffett calls "wide moat businesses". It is very difficult to take away market share from such businesses due to their customer loyalty.

These features protect the companies from competitors and help them generate higher return on equity and charge higher prices to customers.

Wal-Mart, a very successful retailer, has marketed itself as the lowest price retailer for almost everything consumers spend their money on. Due to the size of Wal-Mart it is enable to to squeeze lower prices from it suppliers, they pass these low prices on to the customer. The low prices are Wal-Mart's competitive advantage.

The Coca-Cola Company, worlds biggest soft drink producers, is best known for its most prominent drink, Coke. It's a strong global brand, consumers a willing to pay a premium for the product. There are alternatives to Coke, like Pepsi, but any Coke drinker can taste the difference between a Coke and a Pepsi. The quality of Coca-Cola is the reason why multiple generations keep drinking the sugar flavored drink. This strong band name is a competitive advantage The Coca-Cola Company has. Another company with a portfolio of strong brand names is Philip Morris Co. It sells cigarettes outside the united states and owns the strong Marlboro brand.

A steady business model
A steady business model, what does that mean? It means that the business isn't subject to rapid changes. This results in shying away from start-ups and most technology companies. Technology has to be innovative, if it's not, it will lose its competitive advantages. In the tech sector, moats can evaporate quickly, we all remember Eastman Kodak, market leader in camera's in the past, now basically bankrupt. It failed to adept to the  a big market changer, the digital camera.

A steady business model like Coke is much more appealing to me. The company has been selling sugar flavored syrup for over 130 years now, this makes the profits very predictable and thus easy to predict future profits and future dividend growth.

Small companies do not have establish their moats yet. Shying away from small companies might result in me missing out on the next Apple. You just have to remember, for every success story like Apple, there are 100 not-so-success stories. I can't pick the next Apple, so I'm not trying to. I stick to steady businesses.

A strong balance sheet
When researching a stock, I always take a look at the balance sheet. I'm looking for a low debt/equity ratio.  I want the company to be able to cover its interest payments very generously (interest coverage ratio). I do not like companies with big debt loads, this could bring problems in the future when interest rates rise.

Some companies have huge amounts of cash sitting on the balance sheet. Microsoft for example has more than 70 billion dollars in cash & equivalents the last time I checked. This bale of cash, if used intelligently, can provide great shareholder returns. This money can be used for expansion of the business, acquisitions, share buybacks and dividends. A strong balance sheet is always a plus.

A history of paying and increasing dividends
Being a dividend growth investor, I focus on dividend paying stocks. I want my portfolio to produce a rising stream of income that protects my principal and income from inflation. Companies which have raised their dividend for decades typically are mature and  stable businesses, which generate a sufficient amount of cash to expand and share with the shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks. When a management has committed itself to raising the dividend year after year, it gets ingrained in the corporate culture.

An attractive valuation
I don't want to pay too much for a business. No matter how wonderful a company is, no business is worth any price. Overpaying for businesses could result in sub par total returns. We saw this during the dot-com boom or irrational exuberance in the late nineties. Household names like Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart were trading for 40 times earnings. The investor who bought stocks at those valuation were experiencing sub par total returns for the last 13 years.

As a rule of thumb, I do not to pay more than 20 times trailing earnings for a stock, unless I feel very confident about the future growth prospect of a business.

I briefly discussed a few characteristics I look for in businesses.Of course there are multiple other factors I take into account.  When I think of buying a stock, I don't ask myself the question: "What will go up next week?" I think about the things I discussed above. These are things make a business a good business, in my opinion.

When the business is good, the stock will eventually follow.

Thanks for reading

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