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The Unlikeliest Dividend Play

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are two of the finest dividend investors ever to walk the planet.

Sound strange? It should. Buffett has famously eschewed dividend payouts to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, while demanding fat yields from Berkshire's portfolio companies.

"Unrestricted earnings should be retained only when there is a reasonable prospect -- backed preferably by historical evidence or, when appropriate, by a thoughtful analysis of the future -- that for every dollar retained by the corporation, at least one dollar of market value will be created for owners," Buffett wrote in his 1984 letter to Berkshire shareholders.

Buffett's billion-dollar secret ... exposed! 
The emphasis is Buffett's, not ours. But we heartily agree. Businesses that don't pay dividends should have a plan to produce massive returns with every dollar of retained capital -- the sorts of returns Buffett and Munger have spent decades delivering to their own shareholders.

Massive is too small a word to describe the gains. Let's go with "ginormous" instead. Here's why: Buffett, Munger, and their top-notch managers have engineered a 20% annual return on Berkshire's per-share book value since 1965. All but three of those years (1965 through 1967), the company retained all earnings, paying no dividends.

Unfair, you say? Unethical? Name a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that pays a 20% annual yield, and you can join the chorus of sourpusses who demand that Buffett and Munger pay a dividend. Let us know when you find one.

Actually, let us save you the trouble. Passable 10% yielders such as Prospect Capital (Nasdaq: PSEC  ) and Frontier Communications (NYSE: FTR  ) are rare enough in the small-cap ranks. Unless you count prayer as a strategy, your only decent option for a 20% yield is a highflier managed investment vehicle such as the India Fund (NYSE: IFN  ) , which regularly dispenses long-term capital gains to investors.

That's our money, pal 
As we see it, Buffett's dividend policy is actually a boon for shareholders. He likens us to bankers, entitled to a return on the capital borrowed from us when we invest. Dividend payments are the default, made in lieu of a proven history of effective use of capital.

In stark mathematical terms, this means capital allocation laggards such as Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) and Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE: OWW  ) ought to be paying dividends. Only once in the past three years have either of these non-payers earned more than 3% on their available capital.

Compare that with Aeropostale (NYSE: ARO  ) and J. Crew Group (NYSE: JCG  ) , non-payers also. Yet each company has a history of producing better-than-20% returns on capital. They've earned the right to be stingy.

Neither Buffett nor Munger are immune from this test. Remember: Berkshire spent 1965-1967 paying dividends, and in the ensuing decade would produce better-than-40% returns four times in 10 years.

Dividends helped produce those returns, and they're still helping Buffett and Munger today. Have a look at these yields on Berkshire's 10 largest holdings:


Shares Held*


Estimated Annual Income




$328 million

Wells Fargo



$63 million

Burlington Northern



$123 million

American Express



$109 million

Procter & Gamble



$170 million




$160 million




$115 million

Johnson & Johnson



$72 million




$41 million

Wesco Financial



$9 million

Sources: Capital IQ, Yahoo! Finance, and authors' calculations.
*As of Sept. 30, 2009.

Buffett also took advantage of last year's market insanity to buy preferred shares of General Electric and Goldman Sachs that pay Berkshire Hathaway $800 million in annual dividends.

This deal is so good that Buffett noted in an interview that the Goldman investment alone is paying Berkshire almost $1,000 per minute the company doesn't repurchase his investment. "So I try not to answer the phone if I think Goldman's calling," Buffett said.

Berkshire Hathaway: the unlikeliest dividend play 
All told, Berkshire collects some $2 billion per year in dividends on its $62 billion portfolio -- a fat 3.4% annual yield!

This matters more than you may think. Buffett and Munger measure themselves against the return of the S&P 500, an index that yields 1.7% as of this writing. Berkshire earns twice that. Buffett and Munger, two superinvestors who need no extra advantages, are already starting with a lead on Mr. Market. They're using dividends to rig the race in their favor.

You can, too 
Now here's the best part: You needn't be a Berkshire shareholder to implement Buffett's strategy. You can do just as well or better by investing in your own basket of safe stocks with generous yields. Our Motley Fool Income Investor portfolio, for example, yields 4.1% -- well ahead of the market average.

To be fair, and as the past year has shown, not all dividend stocks are created equal. We want what Buffett wants: generous dividend payers with proven management teams, durable competitive advantages, and rock-solid financials -- all at a cheap price.

If Buffett's approach makes sense to you, and you're looking for some solid dividend payers, you can check out our Income Investor team's favorite stocks right now, free for the next 30 days. Click here for instant, unfettered access to all their research and seven "Buy First" recommendations. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Already a member of Income Investor? Log in here.

This article was first published on Sept. 24, 2009. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers and Foolish editor Ilan Moscovitz strongly suggest you read Buffett's collection of letters to shareholders if you haven't already. No better investing education exists anywhere. Tim and Ilan each owned shares of Berkshire at the time of publication. Tim also owned shares of Prospect Capital. Procter & Gamble, Coke, and Johnson & Johnson are Income Investor recommendations. American Express, Berkshire, and Coke are Inside Value selections. Berkshire is also a Stock Advisor pick. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire and Procter & Gamble and has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (26)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2009, at 6:39 PM, prginww wrote:

    I have been a dividend guy for a long time. But the lesson I learned from last year was that your dividends must, must, must be secure. Check the payout ratio. Check current assets versus current liabilities. You have to ask yourself what would happen to the dividend should profits collapse.

    The opposite is also true. Does the company have a track record of raising the payout? A good income stock will produce much more than the current yield if held over a long period of time.

    Good luck and may your dividends reward you.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2009, at 5:49 PM, prginww wrote:

    Get your facts straight. IFN is not paying any dividend for 2009.

  • Report this Comment On December 29, 2009, at 6:20 PM, prginww wrote:

    Hello Weeb59,

    Thanks for writing.

    IFN typically pays a year-end return of capital, but you are correct per this press release:

    Our apologies for the mistake.

    Foolish best,

    Tim (TMFMileHigh and @milehihghfool on Twitter)

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2010, at 11:34 PM, prginww wrote:

    I have held shares in IFN for several years and was shocked and disappointed to find NO DIVIDEND OR CAPITAL GAINS dollars paid out to the shareholders this year. For someone who lives off fixed income investments this did not make me happy. Your touting this stock as an example just reinforces your poor knowledge on the subject

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