During the bull market, the pursuit of rapidly growing businesses
obscured the real nature of equity returns. But growth isn't all there
is to successful investing; it's just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Total return includes not only price appreciation, but income as well.
And what causes price appreciation? In strictly theoretical terms,
there's only one answer: anticipated dividends. Earnings are just a
proxy for dividend-paying power. And dividend potential is not solely
driven by growth of the underlying business--in fact, rapid growth in
certain capital-intensive businesses can actually be a drag on
Investors who focus only on sales or earnings growth--or even just
the appreciation of the stock price--stand to miss the big picture. In
fact, a company that isn't paying a healthy dividend may be setting
its shareholders up for an unfortunate fate.
In Jeremy Siegel's The Future for Investors, the market's top
professor analyzed the returns of the original S&P 500 companies
from the formation of the index in 1957 through the end of 2003.
What was the best-performing stock? Was it in color televisions
(remember Zenith)? Telecommunications (AT&T T)? Groundbreaking
pharmaceuticals (Syntex/Roche)? Surely, it must have been a
computer stock (IBM IBM)?
None of the above. The best of the best hails not from a hot, rapidly
growing industry, but instead from a field that was actually
surrendering customers the entire time: cigarette maker Philip
Morris, now known as Altria Group MO. Over Siegel's 46-year time
frame, Philip Morris posted total returns of an incredible 19.75% per
What was the secret? Credit a one-two punch of high dividends and
profitable, moat-protected growth. Philip Morris made some
acquisitions over the years, which were generally successful--but the
overwhelming majority of its free cash flow was paid out as
dividends or used to repurchase shares. As Marlboro gained market
share and raised prices, Philip Morris grew the core business at a
decent (if uninspiring) rate over the years. But what if the company-
-listening to the fans of growth and the foes of taxes--attempted to
grow the entire business at 19.75% per year? At that rate it would
have subsumed the entire U.S. economy by now.
The lesson is that no business can grow faster than the economy
indefinitely, but that lack of growth doesn't cap investor returns.
Amazingly, by maximizing boring old dividends and share buybacks, a
low-growth business can turn out to be the highest total return
investment of all time. As Siegel makes abundantly clear, "growth
does not equal return." Only profitable growth--in businesses
protected by an economic moat--can do that.