The Unlikeliest Dividend Play

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

Sound strange? It should. Buffett has famously eschewed dividend payouts to Berkshire Hathaway  (NYSE: BRK-A  ) 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.

That's our money, pal 
As we see it, Buffett's dividend policy is actually a boon for shareholders. In effect, he argues that we are bankers, entitled to a return on the capital our portfolio companies borrow from us when we invest. Dividends should be the default -- a to-be-expected payment made in lieu of a proven history of capital allocation skills.

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 juicy yields on Berkshire's 10 largest holdings:

Company

Shares Held*

Yield

Estimated Annual Income

Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  )

200,000,000

3.3%

$352 million

Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  )

302,088,385

0.7%

$60 million

American Express

151,610,700

1.8%

$109 million

Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  )

87,503,411

2.8%

$154 million

Kraft

138,272,500

3.9%

$160 million

Wesco

5,703,087

0.4%

$9 million

Wal-Mart

39,037,142

2.2%

$47 million

ConocoPhillips

37,711,330

3.9%

$75 million

US Bancorp

69,039,426

0.8%

$14 million

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  )

27,132,467

3%

$53 million

Sources: Capital IQ, Yahoo! Finance, and authors' calculations.
*Share data as of Dec. 31, 2009.

In addition, Buffett took advantage of last year's market insanity to buy preferred shares of General Electric  (NYSE: GE  ) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) that pay Berkshire Hathaway $800 million in annual dividends.

This deal is so good that Buffett noted in a recent 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 $59 billion portfolio -- a fat 3.2% 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 1.9% as of this writing. See the math at work here? These two superinvestors, who need no extra advantages, are already starting with a lead on Mr. Market. They've rigged the race in their favor using dividends.

You can, too 
And 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 4.2% -- well ahead of the market average.

To be fair, and as the past year has shown, not all dividend stocks are created equal. We prefer generous dividend payers with proven management teams, durable competitive advantages, and rock-solid financials -- all at a cheap price. We want what Buffett wants: dividend payers that act like steroids for our portfolios, juice that rigs our own races against Mr. Market.

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 six "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 owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway, and Ilan owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway and US Bank, at the time of publication. Procter & Gamble, Coke, and Johnson & Johnson are Income Investor recommendations. American Express, Berkshire, Wal-Mart, and Coke are Inside Value selections. Berkshire is also a Stock Advisor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire and Procter & Gamble and has a disclosure policy.


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