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投资者痴迷于分红,CEO不应如此

Vitality Katsenelson 2019年02月01日

随着管理者继续设法取悦于渴望分红的投资者,在分红超过公司承受能力时,其价值也将荡然无存。

和许多职业投资人一样,我喜欢分红型公司。分红带来有形和无形收益——在过去100年里,股票总回报的一半都来自分红。

在当今世界,业绩往往是首席财务官想象力的创造性成果,分红则源于现金流,因而是公司确实盈利的证据。

最后,大量分红的公司在业务管理上必须要有远超旁人的纪律性,因为高额分红会产生又一项现金成本,这样管理层在扩张性收购中可烧的现金就变少了。

但在过去10年中,人为制造的低利率让分红变成了一种“邪教”——如果你持股的公司分红,那你就是“认真的”投资者;如果你的投资策略核心不是分红,那你就是“异教徒”,而且需要带着歉意解释你为何不在分红的圣殿中祈祷。

我完全理解为什么会出现这样的“邪教”,以前投资者通过债券来获得持续收入,现在则不得不依赖分红型公司。

问题在于这种“邪教”对上市公司领导者产生了错误的激励。如果投资者想要红利,那他们就会得到红利。最近几年,公司开始在这方面耍花招,他们会挤出红利来,甚至被迫借钱来分红。

分红“邪教”的危害

以埃克森美孚为例。这是一家非常成熟的公司,其石油产量在过去十个季度中出现了九次滑坡。面对同样下滑的油价,该公司毫无办法。尽管有如此多的不利因素,但埃克森美孚表现的很勇敢,每年都提高分红水平。在过去四年中,它有两年不得不借钱分红,请不要担心。

我很同情埃克森美孚的管理层,他们觉得自己必须这样做,因为不断上升的红利让他们进入了“分红贵族”独家俱乐部,这里的成员都是在过去25年中一直提高分红水平的公司。他们经营着一家成熟但已风光不再的公司,业绩飘忽不定,十年来一直未能提高利润。而且基于其增长前景,埃克森美孚的市盈率不应达到目前的15倍。能有这么高的估值只是因为它是分红大户。

人们会觉得已经连续上升25年的红利还会再增长25年(或者至少能保持不变)。另一个分红大户通用电气在提高分红的道路上一直走到了尽头,这才把红利削减了一半,然后又降到了1美分。

在一个半理性的正常世界,分红应该是生意兴隆的副产品,应该是管理层理性分配资金的一部分。但低利率把分红型公司变成了类似于债券的产品,而且现在他们必须制造出红利来,代价则往往是他们的未来。

让我们再看看AT&T。目前这家公司背负着1800亿美元债务,它旗下的DirecTV业务正在滑坡,最重要的后付费无线用户也在被竞争对手夺走。把每年用于分红的130亿美元资金投向别处——用来还债,降低自身风险并延长自己的“生命跑道”应该是非常合理的选择。然而,仅仅是降低或削减红利的想法就会让投资者立即“造反”。所以就像通用电气那样,AT&T从未下调过分红水平,直到外部环境迫使它这样做。

在把分红型股票视为债券替代品的问题上,投资者应当非常小心,因为有一个很充分的理由。债券是有法律约束力的合同,发行债券的公司保证还本付息。如果未能支付利息并且/或者在到期时偿还本金,投资者就可以让这家公司破产。就是这么简单。

如果把某只股票视为债券的替代品,那你就会在脑海中假设自己买进这只股票的价格就是你跟它分手(也就是将其卖出)时的价格。这样,你的注意力就会转向持股期间你注定要享受的那个闪闪发光的东西,也就是红利。你会逐渐忽略这个分红大户的股价可能会下跌的问题,而且在你和其他分红大户爱好者争相抛售这只股票的时候,其价格会变得低得多。

过去10年中,不光是美国,全世界的利率都在下降,对此大家不必担心。2008年以来,高分红股的表现一直好于标普500指数。

然而,大多数高分红个股的升值动力都只有一个,那就是市盈率的增长,它无法重复,而且很容易反转。如果你断定利率会下降,而且会比现在低得多,那你就不用再看这篇文章了。找几只高分红股,买下来,然后就可以不管了。因为它们会一直表现的像超长期债券那样,而且还会带来每年都提高几美分的红利。

如果利率上升,高分红股票的价格就可能和长期债券一样。它们的市盈率就会朝着相反的方向发展,此前十年的增长将被一扫而光。

分析管理,而不是分红

投资者应该怎么办呢?不要把红利当成耀眼而又吸引人的东西,它只是一个多变量分析等式的一部分,而且绝不是该等式的唯一变量。评估一家公司的价值时要假设它不分红——毕竟,红利只是资金分配上的一个决定。

我知道,管理者在资金分配方面的失误已经让数百亿美元化为乌有,无论是回购股票还是失败的收购。但随着管理者继续设法取悦于渴望分红的投资者,在分红超过公司承受能力时,其价值也将荡然无存。

正是出于这个原因,分析公司管理才变得如此重要。许多管理团队都会告诉你正确的东西,他们听上去聪明而细心,但他们的决定连一个非常简单的测验都通不过。这个测验的内容是:如果管理层持有公司10%或20%的股份,他们还会做出同样的决定吗?

如果CEO持有10%或20%的股票,他们会用别的方式来经营通用电气、埃克森美孚或者AT&T吗?可以说,他们会把数十亿分红资金用在截然不同而且利润更高的地方。(财富中文网)

维塔利·凯茨尼尔森是一位特许金融分析师(CFA),在投资公司Investment Management Associates, Inc担任首席执行官。他在个人网站ContrarianEdge.com上发表关于市场的文章,同时著有《The Little Book of Sideways Markets》(Wiley出版社)一书。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

Like many professional investors, I love companies that pay dividends. Dividends bring tangible and intangible benefits: Over the last hundred years, half of total stock returns came from dividends.

In a world where earnings often represent the creative output of CFOs’ imaginations, dividends are paid out of cash flows, and thus are proof that a company’s earnings are real.

Finally, a company that pays out a significant dividend has to have much greater discipline in managing the business, because a significant dividend creates another cash cost, so management has less cash to burn in empire-building acquisitions.

Over the last decade, however, artificially low interest rates have turned dividends into a cult, where if you own companies that pay dividends then you are a “serious” investor, while if dividends are not a centerpiece of your investment strategy you are a heretic and need to apologetically explain why you don’t pray in the high temple of dividends.

I completely understand why this cult has formed: Investors that used to rely on bonds for a constant flow of income are now forced to resort to dividend-paying companies.

The problem is that this cult creates the wrong incentives for leaders of publicly traded companies. If it’s dividends investors want, then dividends they’ll get. In recent years, companies started to game the system, squeezing out dividends even if it meant they had to borrow to pay for them.

The cult of dividends takes its toll

Take ExxonMobil for example. It’s a very mature company whose oil production has declined nine out of the last ten quarters, and it is at the mercy of oil prices that have also been in decline. Despite all that, Exxon is putting on a brave face and raising its dividend every year. Never mind that it had to borrow money to pay the dividend in two out of the last four years.

I sympathize with ExxonMobil’s management, who feel they have to do that because their growing dividend puts them into the exclusive club of “dividend aristocrats” – companies that have consistently raised dividends over the last 25 years. They run a mature, over-the-hill company with very erratic earnings that have not grown in ten years and that, based on its growth prospects, should not trade at its current 15 times earnings. ExxonMobil trades solely on being a dividend aristocrat.

It is assumed that a dividend that was raised for 25 years will continue to be raised (or at least maintained) for the next 25 years. GE, also a dividend aristocrat, raised its dividend until the very end, when it cut it by half and then cut it to a penny.

In a normal, semi-rational world, dividends should be a byproduct of a thriving business; they should be a part of rational capital allocation by management. But low interest rates turned companies that pay dividends into a bond-like product, and now they must manufacture dividends, often at the expense of the future.

Let’s take AT&T. Today, the company is saddled with $180 billion of debt; its DirecTV business is declining; and it is also losing its bread and butter post-paid wireless subscribers to competitors. It would be very rational for the company to divert the $13 billion it spends annually on dividends, using it to pay down debt, to de-risk the company and to increase the runway of its longevity. But the mere thought of a lowered or axed dividend would create an instant investor revolt, so AT&T will never lower its dividend, until, like GE, its external environment forces it to do so.

There is a very good reason why investors should be very careful in treating dividend-paying stocks as bond substitutes. Bonds are legally binding contracts, where interest payments and principal repayment are guaranteed by the company. If a company fails to make interest payments and/or repay principal at maturity, investors will put the company into bankruptcy. It is that simple.

When you start treating a stock as a bond substitute, you are making the mental assumption that the price you pay is what the stock is going to be worth at the time when you are done with it (when you sell it). Thus, your focus shifts to the shiny object you are destined to enjoy in the interim – the dividend. You begin to ignore that the price of that fine aristocrat might be less, a lot less, when you and the stampede of other aristocrat lovers will be selling it.

For the last ten years as interest rates have declined not just in the US but globally, you didn’t have to worry about that. Dividend aristocrats have consistently outperformed the S&P 500 since 2008.

However, the bulk of the aristocrats’ appreciation came from a single, unrepeatable, and highly reversible source: price to earnings expansion. If you are certain that interest rates are going lower, much lower, then you can stop reading this, get yourself some aristocrats, buy and forget them, because they’ll continue to behave like super-long-duration bonds with the added bonus of dividends that grow by a few pennies a year.

If interest rates rise, the prices of dividend aristocrats are likely to act like those of long-term bonds. The price-to-earnings pendulum will swing in the opposite direction, wiping out a decade of gains.

Analyze management, not dividends

What should investors do? View dividends not as a magnetic, shiny object but as just one part in a multivariable analytical equation, and never the only variable in the equation. Value a company as if it did not pay a dividend – after all, a dividend is just a capital-allocation decision.

I know tens of billions of dollars have been destroyed by management’s misallocation of capital, be it through share buybacks or bad acquisitions. But as corporate management continues trying to please dividend-hungry investors, value will also be destroyed when companies pay out more in dividends than they can afford.

This is why analyzing corporate management is so important. A lot of management teams will tell you the right thing; they’ll sound smart and thoughtful; but their decisions will fail a very simple test. Here is the test: If this management owned 10% or 20% of the company, would they be making the same decisions?

Would GE, ExxonMobil, or AT&T have been run differently if they were run by CEOs who owned 10% or 20% of their respective stocks? It’s safe to say they would have put their billions in dividend payments to a very different, more profitable use.

Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA, is the CEO at Investment Management Associates, Inc. He writes about the markets at ContrarianEdge.com, and is the author of The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley).

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