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The emerging debate in Australia about whether to reduce the tax benefits of franking credits and by extension the attractiveness of dividends for income, brings to my mind the company run by Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway. This is a business that has not paid a dividend since 1967, but has created thousands of millionaires and quite a few billionaires too.

Simply retaining profits and generating a return on equity of circa 20 per cent for half a century has seen the shares rise from $40 to over $200,000 each.

Take Australia’s largest generational cohort, the baby boomers – all desperate for income – and then feed them some of the lowest interest rates on their cash in history. Before doing that, engineer a stock market crash, just a few years earlier, ensuring they have a disproportionately large amount of their remaining wealth sitting in said cash.

Now you have the ingredients for a boom in the pursuit of yield and any asset promising one, but it’s important to take a step back from the noise to see the wood from the trees.

Unbridled pursuit of yield

Reading the share market tables last month, I realised that the plethora of price/earnings ratios above 20 is not normal. A 20-year payback period at current earnings rates is a general reflection of hope and unbridled optimism, and while it can be explained, it’s not normal. Nor is it permanent.

The pursuit of yield through dividend-paying shares is analogous to a mindless heard of bison stampeding towards a cliff. Wall Street will sell what Wall Street can sell. Right now selling yield and income is the easiest game in town. Investors are predisposed to hearing the siren song of income and advisers and product issuers are rushing to feed the hoards. There are only a few who are willing to question the conventional thinking about pursuing yield at all costs.

My belief is that the pendulum will swing back and this time is no different to other periods of unbridled optimism. But that is not the subject for discussion today.

Should companies pay high dividends?

Rather, let’s look at a different view of dividends that suggests businesses, shareholders and even Australia as a whole are missing out by investors’ demand for income.

At Montgomery we love income. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing quite as satisfying as receiving cash without having contributed any sweat or labour. But are dividends the best way for companies to reward their investors? We have always held the view that when a business is able to generate a high rate of return on incremental equity, it behooves management to retain profits and reinvest, rather than paying them out. And shareholders are better off financially because in the long run, the share price – at constant price/earnings ratios and assuming no capital raisings or borrowing increases – will rise by the return on equity multiplied by one minus the payout ratio. Buy shares in a company at a price/earnings ratio of 10 times and if the company generates a return on equity of 20 per cent per annum and you sell the shares years from now on a price/earnings of 10 times, your return will be 20 per cent per annum, matching the Return On Equity of the company.

Of course a company can produce a similar result by paying all the earnings out as a dividend and issuing shares through a renounceable rights issue but if a company can generate high rates of return on equity it should be given the capital to do just that.

Assume you own a bank with equity on the balance sheet of $5 million. We will assume this bank generates an attractive return on both existing and incremental equity of 15 per cent – not unlike some of its bigger rivals. We will also assume that if the shares were to trade between willing participants, they would price those shares at two times the equity value – again not unlike the multiple applied to your bank’s bigger competitors – giving your business market value of $10 million. With your bank earning 15 per cent return on $5 million of equity, or $750,000 in the first year, the multiple of earnings at which pieces of your bank would change hands would be an undemanding 13.3 times.

Like many Australian listed companies the board of your bank has acquiesced to baby boomer shareholder demands for more income. It maintains a very high 80 per cent payout ratio, meaning 80 per cent of the company’s annual return is received as dividends and only 20 per is reinvested.

In year one the bank will earn a profit of $750,000 and the dividend will be $600,000 and $150,000 will be reinvested to grow the future profits of the bank. These metrics will produce growth in both equity and dividends of about 3 per cent per annum assuming no additional debt or equity.

After 10 years of these wonderful metrics, and with a bank still generating 15 per cent return on equity, the equity will have grown to $6,719,582. Given the willingness of investors to buy banks for two times the equity, the market value of your bank would now be a little over $13.4 million. But it is not just the asset value that has risen. Your dividends are rising too. After a decade, the dividend in the upcoming year would be $806,350, having grown by 3 per cent per annum.

Under the scenario just described both your net worth and your income has grown steadily at 3 per cent per annum.

Sell shares instead of taking income

The above scenario however is not the only way to derive the desired outcome. The company is forcing you to take a dividend when in fact the return you can achieve is far less than 15 per cent. Logic suggests that if the business can continue to generate 15 per cent on all and any incremental equity, it should indeed do so. But what do the owners do for income if the company is retaining all the profits to redeploy at 15 per cent?

The answer is they can sell some shares. Now, before you write off the proposal as sacrilege, follow through this example of selling-your-shares-along-the-way.

Under the alternative strategy, you leave all earnings in the company and instead sell 6 per cent of your shares in the company annually. Since the shares would be sold at 200 per cent of the equity on the balance sheet, this approach would produce the same $600,000 of cash initially, and growing each year. As you will see shortly however the growth rate is about 8 per cent per year.

Under this strategy, the equity of the company obviously rises faster – to $20.2 million after a decade ($5 million compounded at 15 per cent per annum for a decade).

To receive income you sell shares each year. The perceived downside of this strategy is that as you sell more shares each year, your percentage stake in the business declines. In a decade’s time, your stake would be 53.86 per cent. But perhaps surprisingly, the market value of your stake is actually worth more than under the first scenario. The equity, you might recall has been growing at 15 per cent and trades at two times the equity. It now has a market value of $21.8 million. This compares favourably to the $13.4 million market value of a 100 per cent stake in the equity of the company in the ‘take the dividend now’ scenario.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the cash receipts from selling shares have been higher every year since the second year began. In the tenth year, the cash from selling a 6 per cent stake is almost 78 per cent higher than the first strategy at just under $1.4 million. Obviously, you would not have to sell as large a stake if you didn’t need the additional cash.

Many advisors and investors however would point to the fact that capital gains might be taxed at a higher rate than franked dividends but they forget two things. The first is that many baby boomer investors pay no tax at all. Even after franking credits are added back, the second scenario is a whole lot more attractive. And second, for those investors that do pay tax, the capital gains are only paid on the difference between the purchase and sale price (and subject to CGT discounts), whereas tax is paid on 100 per cent of the grossed-up value of the dividends received.

There are many real world examples

Moving away from hypotheticals to the real world, many attractive businesses generate rates of return on equity that are much higher than 15 per cent and the market is also willing to pay much more than two times book. Some local Australian examples include, REA Group currently trades for 14 times its equity value and Domino’s Pizza at nine times equity. Clearly, there is no need to sell as many shares to make up the income you might like annually.

It is reasonable to conclude that you would be much better off financially if the very best businesses – those that can retain profits and reinvest them at very high rates of return – paid no dividends at all and allowed shareholders to make up their own minds about how much income they needed.

Baby boomers demanding income are therefore stripping from companies the ability to generate even higher returns for them and therefore ripping themselves off. Perhaps 'generation now' is a more apt label for baby boomers after all.

 
Roger Montgomery
Roger Montgomery

Roger shares his stock market insights at his Insights blog, blog.rogermontogmery.com. Investors can also follow Roger on Facebook and watch media interviews at his YouTube channel. Grab your Second Edition copy of Value.able and learn how Roger Montgomery values the best stocks and buys them for less than they're worth. Grab the book now at special price!