Why Abbott Looks Cheap

The pharmaceutical juggernaut Abbott Laboratories looks reasonably cheap these days. Its shares have been going down for the past few weeks and it's a good buying opportunity in my opinion. Here's why.

Consistent Dividend Growth

Abbott has grown dividends consistently for over 25 years. It's part of the Dividend Aristocrats index maintained by S&P. Not only that, but ABT has grown dividends an annualized 9.33% over the last 11 years. On average, the year-over-year dividend growth has also been around the same ballpark, 9.45% (the average and the annualized 11-year return can differ in case most of the growth was in one or just a few years as opposed to consistent over time. When they match, it's a sign the growth has been sustained over time).

Consistent Earnings Growth

A consistent dividend growth needs to be accompanied by a consistent earnings growth too or the dividend is not sustainable. Over the same last 11 years, ABT has had an annualized earnings growth of 9.31%, which comes in very close to its annualized dividend growth. This means that dividend growth is supported by earnings growth directly, which is a good sign. It means the company is passing through all of its extra earnings back to shareholders via dividend increases.

Some people prefer to see earnings growth slightly surpass dividend growth to be on the safe side. But by doing so, it means the company is increasing its cash reserves and I would want to understand why. It could mean an acquisition is coming up or the company is expecting to have higher expenses going forward (patent disputes, lawsuits, etc). So, higher earnings growth per se is neither good or bad, but must be understood. In the case of Abbott, for the past 11 years earnings and dividend growth have matched, which can only mean the company is growing smoothly and not becoming lopsided in anyway, neither increasing cash reserves nor depleting it, hence a very good sign in my opinion.

Consistent Sales Growth

Just because earnings growth have been consistent during this time does not necessarily mean the company is actually generating more cash since earnings can be so easily manipulated. However, 11 years is a long time, especially when the earnings can be seen in form of dividends during this time (it's a lot harder to fake real cash in your pocket than it is on an income statement). Nonetheless, let's see how Abbott fares in sales growth, which is a more direct way of assessing where growth is coming from.

For the past 10 years, sales have grown an annualized 8%. This is only slightly less than the 9% earnings growth, which indicates that for the most part sales have kept pace with earnings. It also indicates that the company has been aggressive at cutting costs at a rate of 1% per year. In the long run I'd expect earnings and dividend growth to slow down to catch up to sales growth. Still, 8% is a good growth rate to have.

Dividend Yield is Moderately High

At a price of approximately $45.50 and with an annual dividend of $1.76, ABT sports a dividend yield of 3.8%, which is pretty decent in today's market. When factoring in a 8-9% growth, it means investors can expect a return of 11-13% on their investment going forward, minus inflation and plus any share price appreciation.

Implied Price using Dividend Discount Model

Treating a share of ABT as a bond and investing in it just for the dividend using the Dividend Discount Model, I came up with a price range for ABT of between $59 and $44. This means that ABT is undervalued at the time of writing. My assumptions were a 10-11% discount and 7% dividend growth, which, given the track record of sales growth of 8% is still a little conservative.

Other Considerations

Other things to consider before investing: why is ABT going down in the past several weeks? No single news piece accounts for this decline, but a more thorough investigation is warranted.

One a price-to-earnings basis, ABT looks fairly valued with a tailing P/E of about 15. However, its forward P/E is only 10, since ABT expects to earn between $4.54 and $4.64 per share in 2011.


All things considered, ABT looks cheap to me. I'm buying shares of Abbott (ABT) at the time of writing. Please do your own analysis before buying.

Disclosures: I own shares of ABT at the time of writing.


Are Muni Bonds Cheap Again?

Back in 2009 Munis got a lot of attention because several states were in trouble, meaning they couldn't service their debt loads. The situation is not much different now and still most muni issues are still being serviced.

So, what has changed?

For one, their credit ratings. Specifically, two California issues I own (one of which I discussed back in 2009) are now back in investment-grade camp. Both 13062TPU2 and 13062TSB1 started 2009 as A+ issues and were downgraded to BAA1 (or BBB as Fitch calls it). Both are now back to A-, as of late 2010. And yet, their prices have fallen recently, probably in anticipation of more ugliness ahead.

However, these two issues are still paying their coupons and both are fully backed by the state's taxing authority. No disclosures of other material events have been filed with the MSRB.

In this case, should a California-based investor buy more?

I can't see why not, at least in the short term. Even if inflation picks up, it's unlikely to pick up so fast as to obsolete these papers, whose coupons are 4.5%, but are yielding now about 6.2%, tax free, at approximately $78 per issue.

Therefore, I'm officially adding to my position. The only trick is that the market is so illiquid now that these bonds are not being offered on a daily basis. Investors must request offers, which are hard to come by. Patience shall be rewarded.

Disclosures: I own both bond issues mentioned above. Consult your financial advisor before making any investment.


S&P 500 Fair Value: What to Expect in 2011

About two years ago I posted my mathematical assessment of the market's fair value. It's still a widely-referenced article. Given your interest and my own curiosity as I prepare my investment route for 2011, I thought I'd repeat that study using more recent data.

But this time, I'll use both a dividend discount model and an earnings growth model.

S&P 500 Fair Value from a Dividend Perspective

Using the Dividend Discount Model here's a quick summary of the market today and what is in store for 2011, if history helps.

If we treat a stock as a bond and nothing else, we're expecting to get in the future our model for dividends  that we got in the past, plus some growth. This is one of the most conservative ways I know to value a stock and hence why I'm using it here to value the index.

Here are the numbers:
  1. All-Time Dividend Growth. Since 1960, the S&P 500 has grown dividends an average of 5.04% per year (note: variance is large, meaning some years this number is much higher, others much lower).
  2. 10-Year Dividend Growth. The last 10 years have seen a lower dividend growth, just 3.58% annually.
  3. Today's Fair Value. Assuming a 5% growth ad infinitum a 7.5% discount rate based on an estimated dividend for 2011 of $24.28, today's fair value is 971, meaning the market is overvalued by 33%.
Modeled value vs. real value for S&P 500 using DDM.

S&P 500 Fair Value from an Earnings Perspective

Earnings provide another way to assess the fair value of an index. By looking at historical growth and current earning yield, we can put a fair price on the index. However, earnings are a secondary measure of what one can get out of an index, since not all earnings flow to the investor as dividends. 

While earnings can give us a good feel for how the market is doing, it can't tell us what the companies will do with their earnings nor how they will return them to us investors. Dividends can be cut, but earnings are flakier, given that they're not usually thought as belonging to shareholders, which is a shame, but quite true of most companies.

Here are the numbers:
  1. All-Time Earnings Growth. Since 1960, S&P 500 earnings have grown an annualized 6.81%.
  2. 10-Year Earnings Growth. For the trailing 10 years, earnings have grown 4.07%.
  3. Today's Fair Value. Assuming 2011 earnings of 87.84 and applying a P/E multiple of 15, the S&P would be valued at 1318 today, meaning the market is undervalued by 1.7%.
Modeled value vs real value for S&P 500 using earnings.


Whether you choose to believe the DDM is more accurate or the earnings approach is more accurate, both currently indicate that the S&P is anywhere from fairly-valued all to the way to grossly overvalued.

However, this numerical assessment assumes a smooth continuation of history without taking into account all that is going on with the economy, international affairs and expectations of inflation/deflation.  Use this to help you make informed decisions, but do not rely entirely on it.

The source of raw data is still here (no affiliation with the authors or their institutions).

Disclosures: I own SPY and many other whole market-tracking indices at the time of writing.


Portfolio Returns for 2010

2010 is now history and it's time to update my portfolio returns to check on my progress so far.

In 2010, my US portfolio, which excludes real estate and foreign accounts, returned (including dividends) approximately 11.3%. Comparing with the S&P 500, which returned (including dividends) approximately 15.1%, my returns are not great.

But my results don't bother me at all, because my portfolio has less risk than the S&P and does better than the S&P in down years. Let's see why. But first, let me define risk.


I don't consider risk to be equal to beta or the Sharpe ratio. That's because I don't mind price swings (which increase beta) as long as I believe that in the long run, my buying power will be maintained or increased versus inflation.

In other words, I consider risk to be the degree with which I may lose principal, either via loss of capital (due to bankruptcy, long-term loses in the underlying companies, etc) or inflation.

With that, let's dissect my portfolio a bit to understand where I trailed the market and why I should not worry about it.

Portfolio Drag

Looking at my holdings and the weights they play on my overall allocation, I found out that the main reason for underperformance in 2010 was due to my bias towards large value companies. These are mainly blue chips that pay steadily-growing dividends such as HD, WMT and JNJ.

Let's look at a couple of those:

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). The BandAid maker opened the year at $64.41 and closed it at $61.55, hence returning -4% in share price appreciation. When adding the 3.2% dividend, JNJ's total return was a negative 0.8%.

Walmart (WMT). The world's largest retailer opened the year at $53.45 and closed it at merely $54.09, thus returning 1.19% in share price. When adding its dividend of 2.2%, WMT's total return was 3.39%.

Home Depot (HD). The home-improvement retailer opened the year at $28.93 and closed at $30.21, thus returning 4.4% in share price. Adding its 3.3% dividend, HD's total return was 7.7%.

Therefore, my over-reliance on these big names caused my portfolio to lag behind the larger market.

However, as I've mentioned before, I believe my capital will be preserved better if I stay with these stocks for the long-run, as opposed to rotating in and out growth or "story" stocks throughout the year.

Goals, Restated

For the largest part of my portfolio, my goal is on dividend growth and capital preservation. As such, I believe these companies will continue doing the job. All three have been increasing dividends over the years (HD did pause for a while though, but I believe they will resume soon) and as long as my capital is safe with them, I will reap the benefits of the increasing dividends over time.

To recap my investing approach: When I invest, I look for companies with a history of sustainable dividend growth. Then I factor in this growth and current share price to determine a price I should pay now that will yield at least 11-12% dividend return over many years, with a margin of safety of between 10 and 15% (depending on various fundamental and historical factors).

For this reason, I'm quite happy with my returns so far. I will lag the S&P in good years, but I will do better in the down years (like I did in 2008).

Disclosures: I own every stock mentioned above at the time of writing.


Two High-Yield Funds To Consider In 2011

In my quest for high returns, high yield is an obvious candidate. It's also a tricky one for the same reason: if it's so obvious, it probably won't last long or is very risky.

Nonetheless, a little bit of research can help mitigate these things a bit. Research won't guarantee anything -- nothing is ever guaranteed in investing. But I digress.

Here are the two funds that may help boost a small part of your portfolio the same way they're boosting a small part of mine (emphasis on small).

CEF Income Composite (PCEF)

The PowerShares* Closed-End Fund Income Composite (ticker: PCEF) is a fund of closed-end funds seeking high current income. It tries to achieve this by rotating in and out of closed-end funds when they offer a discount to NAV (net asset value) and good risk-reward prospects based on PowerShares proprietary trading technology. It currently yields  about 8% and pays out monthly dividends. It has a very steep  fee: 1.81% (0.50% for the ETF and the rest as per the underlying funds).

What I like about this fund is in part derived from what I like about CEFs (Closed-End Funds): they often trade at a discount to NAV and attract less attention than other funds. CEFs are often leveraged and they use long and short strategies to boost performance (and thus increase risk). The subject of closed-end funds is very interesting, but long. I'll reserve the details for another post.

With PCEF in particular, the yield and the monthly payouts are very nice. I looked at the top 5 funds that compose this ETF and they are reasonable funds with the typical risk profile of CEFs: some leverage (20-30%), a good diversifications of securities and most are not managed payout funds, which in my opinion are horrible funds (managed payout funds are those that make a distribution whether or not they have gains, which means that in lean times they will return capital to shareholders, which is a waste of time). Sadly, out of the top five funds, two are returning capital to shareholders.

Here is the breakdown of investment of PCEF, according to PowerShares:

(source: PowerShares.com)

High Yield Bond Fund (DHY)

The Credit Suisse** High Yield Bond Fund (ticker: DHY) is a simple CEF, not a fund of funds. It invests primarily on US corporate "junk" bonds. These are bonds rated "below investment grade" by the credit agencies. What this means is that these securities are less likely to re-pay their debts than the theoretically safest bond out there: US treasury bonds. In reality, no company wants to default on their bonds, which would imply having to file for bankruptcy protection and possibly liquidate the company. But in practice, this does happen, so the credit rating is important. Just keep in mind that low doesn't mean investors won't get paid. It means investors should demand higher yields.

DHY offers a monthly "dividend" (treated as regular income at tax time) that yields about 11% annualized. The underlying portfolio has a medium duration -- 4.75 years -- which means that the portfolio is not super sensitive to interest rate changes like, say, a 30-year bond. But it is not immune either.

The fund is leveraged, about 29% and has an expense rate that is very steep: 2.65%. Typically, I don't invest in funds with high fees, but in the case of CEFs I allow a few exceptions when I can get the funds at a discount.

This fund in particular is offering about 1-2% discount to NAV right now (it was 1.1% when I bought it). But it recently traded at a large premium (see graph below), which means that an attentive investor may capture outsized returns.

(source: CEFConnect.com)

It has, however, traded at significant discounts to NAV in the previous 3 years, which means this is a short-term play only.


I consider both of these investments to deviate from my value strategy. First, they are expensive and leveraged and second, at least DHY is a short-term investment only given its long history of premium/discount. So, consider yourself warned. However, the yields are decent and given that inflation is pretty much staying under wraps for a short while (at least until the Fed hits again with QE3), these two funds can offer a nice current yield.

Have a profitable 2011 everyone.

Disclosures: I own both of these funds at the time of writing.

* I'm not affiliated with PowerShares in anyway. Moreover, I usually don't endorse their dynamic way of portfolio construction and higher fees. This is one of the exceptions.

** I'm also not affiliated with Credit Suisse either.