P&G has a higher PE than Google as investors drive up the shares of dividend-paying companies, fueling a debate over whether these haven stocks are getting dangerously expensive

Updated April 28, 2013, 4:42 p.m. ET

In Stocks, Payouts Trump Potential

By JONATHAN CHENG

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Analysts expect paper-towel, toothpaste and soap maker Procter & GamblePG +0.68% to churn out per-share earnings growth of about 6% this year. Google‘sGOOG -0.95% profits will jump 18%, other analysts predict. So which stock is hotter? The answer: P&G, trading at 18 times projected per-share earnings and far above its five-year average of 15.4, according to data provider FactSet. In contrast, Google has a P/E ratio of 16.6, below its five-year average of 17.2. Investors are attracted by P&G’s sturdy dividend yield of 3.1%, assuring them at least a modest return on a stock known for its reliable performance. Google pays no dividend.

Investors searching for higher yields are driving up the shares of dividend-paying companies, fueling a debate over whether these traditional haven stocks are getting dangerously expensive. Some buyers argue that dividend stocks have entered a period where demand for income will keep valuations high, perhaps for years, thanks to Federal Reserve easy-money policies that are expected to remain in place at least into 2015. Skeptics say the “this time is different” thesis will prove wrong, and that investors will discover they have overpaid.Demand for dividend payers has led to the unusual sight of stodgy, slow-growing companies commanding higher valuations than stocks with fast-growing profit streams. That is especially unusual in a bull market, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average near record highs.

James Swanson, chief investment strategist at MFS Investment Management, which oversees about $350 billion, says he understands the appeal of dividend stocks given historically low interest rates. But he says the effect on valuations is “the biggest glaring discrepancy I see in the market.”

“You have these tech companies that have double-digit earnings growth, no debt, huge cash balances and they’re trading at 12 times forward earnings, while you have a utility in Ohio at 16 times earnings,” he says. “If you don’t think there’s a recession coming, how far do you go with this game?”

Pretty far, says Donald Taylor, a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton Investments, who argues there are powerful forces driving up long-term valuations for dividend payers.

“We could be in this world for quite some time,” says Mr. Taylor, who manages the $10 billion Franklin Rising Dividends Fund. “The macro environment that has caused utilities and telecoms, as well as consumer staples, to be expensive relative to history…is not at all likely to change anytime soon.”

Mr. Taylor counts P&G among his fund’s biggest holdings. “Can it get to a P/E of 20 times, or 22 times? In this kind of environment, it wouldn’t bother me too much,” he says.

Dividends, say those bullish on the sector, are only beginning to reclaim the role they have historically played in generating profits for investors. Dividends account for more than half of total returns since 1928, according to Strategas Research Partners. During the 1930s and the first decade of this century, when the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index lost ground, dividends accounted for all the gains.

That the market’s most conservative stocks now command a higher valuation than companies generating faster earnings growth is another ripple from the Fed’s easy-money policies.

As the Fed has pushed down yields on U.S. government bonds, and pledged to keep rates low for years, investors have gravitated into riskier investments in search of yield. The search for bigger payouts explains why yields on riskier high-yield bonds fell to a record of 5.39% last week, Barclays BARC.LN -1.02% said.

“This is not a product of equity investors buying defensive stocks and hiding out,” sayid Chris Wallis, chief investment officer of Vaughan Nelson Investment Management, which manages about $8 billion in assets in Houston.

“What we have is money that had typically gone to fixed income now coming into equities,” Mr. Wallis said. “They’re looking for bond substitutes and it doesn’t mean that the money is going to exit and go either to cyclical stocks or go to cash. I think it’s going to stay where it is.”

Barry Knapp, chief U.S. equity strategist for Barclays, points to Fed policy in recommending clients stick to high-dividend payers despite “richness” in these stocks’ valuations. “If you’re in this for a long period of time, we suggest you stick with these stocks, as long as the Fed sticks to its current policy,” a scenario he says could persist for years.

Another reason dividend bulls think demand for the stocks will remain strong is that many U.S. companies, particularly in the technology and financial sectors, are deploying growing cash hoards by paying dividends for the first time, or ramping up existing payouts. And there is more to go, they argue. S&P 500 companies pay out about a third of their profits in dividends, below the long-term average of about 50%, Strategas said.

“There’s definitely been a call from shareholders for capital to be returned, because people are so desperate for yield,” said Emily Jones, vice president of investment strategy at Strategas.

Another rationale for higher valuations: baby boomers. As the wave of boomers heads into retirement, demand for the income generated by dividend stocks will only increase.

“The average person in the U.S. would prefer more of an income orientation, for life-cycle reasons,” said Franklin Templeton’s Mr. Taylor.

The interest in dividend stocks has led the broader rally in stocks. While the S&P 500 has risen 11% in 2013, the utilities, telecommunications and consumer-staples sectors, which tend to offer high dividends, are each up by 14% or more.

The S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats—an index of U.S. companies, including P&G, that have increased their dividends each year for 20 years or longer—has been widening its lead over its mainstream rival all year long. So far, it is up 15%.

However, Andres Garcia-Amaya, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, which oversees $400 billion, is wary. “Once the economic data starts to show stronger cyclical recovery, investors will get a little bit greedier, and those in cash will move to bonds, and those in bonds will move to dividend stocks, and those will move to cyclical stocks,” he says.

But Ms. Jones sees a different scenario, arguing that as any eventual Fed tightening inflicts losses on bond investors, some of that money will gravitate toward dividend stocks.

“We definitely think there’s more room to go in the dividend trade,” she says.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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