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Each summer, my wife's family spends a week at the beach, and since taking the horde out to dinner each night isn't exactly economical, we stock up on food and drinks before we leave.

Over the years, the stocking-up process has taken on a life of its own -- competition is second nature in a big family -- and we'll drive to five stores just to see who has the lowest price on things like macaroni and cheese and paper towels. Never mind the gas costs -- we want to save a dime on Sprite!

I'm sure you have similar stories of frugality in your family. I do find it interesting, though, that as consumers, we'll go to great lengths to find the best value, but as investors, we tend to do far less research before making a purchase. As Buffett reminds us, "Price is what you pay, value is what you get," so before buying any stock it's critical to understand just what value we're getting for our money.

For the weekend investor who is juggling life's myriad responsibilities, finding the time to read about or run a valuation on a company may be next to impossible. Fortunately, there's a valuation model available that is both simple to use and is rooted in good financial sense.

More simplicity, less complexity
The "H-Model" was put forth in 1984 by Russell Fuller and Chi-Cheng Hsia in the Financial Analysts Journal, and it's based on the principles of the dividend discount model (DDM), which states that the value of a stock is the present value of its future dividend payments, discounted at the company's cost of equity.

What I like about the H-Model is that it assumes a smooth linear decline in the dividend growth rate over a set number of years rather than the sharp declines assumed in some other models. The H-Model's assumptions also seem to better reflect the natural life-cycle of a business -- as competition sets in and growth harder to come by, all companies will inevitably slow down, but in most cases the decline is gradual and not abrupt.

The H-Model equation can be written as:

Stock value = (DPS * (1+gL)) + (DPS * H * (gS-gL)) divided by (r-gL)

Where:
DPS = current dividends per share
H = half-life of extraordinary growth (i.e. if you expect 10 years of extraordinary growth, H = 5)
r = Cost of Equity
gL = Stable growth rate
gS = Initial high growth rate

The dividends per share figure is the only input that doesn't need to be supposed. Starting with the stable growth rate, this is the rate that the company is expected to grow in perpetuity, so it can't grow at a rate above the overall economy (2%-3%). Otherwise, mathematically we'd be assuming the company would eventually become the economy.

For the initial high growth rate, a good starting point is the annualized dividend growth rate over the past three or five years, unless it was a period of exceptional growth.

The next step is to figure out how long it could take for the company's high growth rate to decline to the economy's rate. Surely some companies with strong competitive advantages could grow at above-average rates for the next 20 years (an H-value of 10), but not every company has a wide economic moat. For the latter, a good starting point is 10 years (an H-value of five).

Finally, the cost of equity can be understood a number of ways, but it's essentially the return the company must offer to shareholders to compensate them for taking the risk of owning its stock. For most blue chips today, a good initial estimate is 8%-10%.

Dividend-based valuation models make intuitive sense. After all, as equity owners, the only real cash flows we receive are dividends. Yes, a company may have extra cash flows that it isn't paying out as dividends, but we can't exactly walk into headquarters and demand legal tender unless we care to meet a nice security guard.

On the other hand, dividend-based valuations do have their limitations. First, they work best with, well, companies that pay dividends and ideally those with stated dividend policies or grow their dividends in some relation to earnings growth. Second, they don't give a company credit for the free cash flow it has retained for other purposes, so a dividend-based model may actually undervalue companies that don't pay out most of their free cash as dividends.

Finally, the H-Model assumes a steady dividend payout ratio over time, even though companies tend to pay out a larger percentage of earnings as they mature. It works best, then, with larger companies that already pay out at least 40% of earnings as dividends.

Some examples
Now that we've kicked the tires, let's take the H-Model for a spin and try it on some real stocks.

For each company in the following table, I've made the following assumptions:

1. The initial growth rate (gS) is based on Bloomberg's three-year dividend growth estimate.
2. The long-term growth rate (gL) is equal to 3%.
3. The period of extraordinary growth will be 20 years (H = 10).
4. The cost of equity is 9%.

Company

Dividend Per Share

3-Year Projected Dividend Growth Rate

Current Price

H-Model Valuation

Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB  ) \$1.16 8.4% \$34.90 \$30.35
Southern Co. (NYSE: SO  ) \$1.82 3.9% \$38.03 \$33.97
McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) \$2.44 10.5% \$73.60 \$72.39
Hershey (NYSE: HSY  ) \$1.28 10.8% \$48.79 \$38.61
Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) \$1.76 7.7% \$63.04 \$44.40
H.J. Heinz (NYSE: HNZ  ) \$1.80 7.0% \$48.67 \$42.90
Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM  ) \$2.56 8.5% \$56.59 \$67.41

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's, and Bloomberg as of Jan. 13.

It's important to note that these results aren't meant to be the final word on these stocks' valuations. Some of these companies may indeed have higher or lower cost of equity, for instance. Also, remember that dividend-based models don't give companies credit for retained free cash, so one way to think of the results is as a "floor" on the stock's value.

Final words
Valuing a stock may not be as easy (or as fun) as finding value in the supermarket, but it's still a critical step in the investment process. The H-Model has its drawbacks and limitations, but it is a relatively simple and intuitive model that may help you avoid overpaying for your stocks.

Valuation is a key element of Motley Fool Pro's research process. The team has set a lofty goal of closing at least 75% of its positions for a profit (it's well ahead of that at this point), and that means making sure they don't consistently overpay for their investments.

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, Pro will open for just a few days for the first time since June to a small number of new members. If you'd like to learn more, simply enter your email address into the box below.

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Fool analyst Todd Wenning owns shares of Philip Morris International. Southern, Coca-Cola, and H.J. Heinz are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value selection. Philip Morris International is a Global Gains choice. The Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola and Philip Morris International and has a disclosure policy.

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 icon found on every comment.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 14, 2011, at 3:35 PM, XMFPhila100 wrote:

Hi Fools,

In the original version of this article, there's an error in the H-Model equation.

Price = (DPS * (1+gL)) + (DPS * H * (gS-gL))

----------------------------------------------------

(r - gL)

We regret the mistake and will get it corrected as quickly as possible.

Foolish best,

Todd Wenning

• ###### Report this Comment On January 15, 2011, at 12:39 PM, mrevspara1 wrote:

For the weekend investor this is hardly simple.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 15, 2011, at 2:26 PM, vaidybala wrote:

In the original equation, I find stock price changed to price, subscriptH may be used. Other than that I did not notice anything different. Your original calculation works out just fine. I learned something. Most of the time, I do not know whether the stock price is Ok, under or over valued. This article helped me to fathom the market.

Thanks

Vaidybala

• ###### Report this Comment On January 15, 2011, at 2:42 PM, PhredFirecloud wrote:

So with no dividends a stock should have a zero value? Can't say I really disagree.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 16, 2011, at 5:54 AM, XMFPhila100 wrote:

Hi vaidybala,

I'm glad you found it helpful. Yeah, the original equation lacked an addition symbol in the (1+gsubL).

Hi mrevspara1,

Admittedly, it's not a valuation you can run during a commercial break, but I'd be afraid of any valuation model that requires such little thought. It does take a little work to figure out growth assumptions and the discount rate, but the H-Model is miles simpler than, say, a free cash flow model with five spreadsheets of data, and arguably a bit cleaner if used on the right type of company.

Hi Phredfirecloud,

As with any dividend-based model, the H-Model isn't ideal for non-dividend paying stocks or companies that don't have a progressive dividend policy. You'd essentially need to predict when the non-dividend payer would begin paying dividends, which may be a futile effort.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 17, 2011, at 10:06 AM, Merton123 wrote:

Todd Wenning - I wonder if you could use Benjamin Graham value equation for dividends?

Y = m(x) + b

Y = value of the stock

m = earnings growth rate

x = earnings/share

b = P/E ratio assuming 0 earning growth

to translate this equation to a dividend based model

m = dividend growth rate

x = dividend per share

b = P/D ratio assuming 0 dividend growth.

What should be b in the dividend valuation model? I believe that Benjamin Graham probably graphed many stocks during his lifetime to get b = 8.5 in his stock valuation model. Surprisingly no-one has done the same for dividends looking at the big cap valuation. Thoeretically the two models should approximate each other and can be done on the back of an envelope.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 17, 2011, at 2:48 PM, CantateDomino wrote:

Find excel program for H-Model valuations here:

• ###### Report this Comment On January 17, 2011, at 7:51 PM, Diki44 wrote:

Hi Todd, When did the dividend for HNZ jump from \$1,80 to \$2.84? Shucks, now I will have to calculate the H-Model myself, using the excel program of course. Thanks anyway for the information.

• ###### Report this Comment On January 18, 2011, at 7:51 AM, XMFPhila100 wrote:

Hi Diki44,

Good catch. The H-Model result is still the same, but you're right that the dividend is \$1.80 for HNZ. We'll get that updated.

Foolish best,

Todd Wenning

• ###### Report this Comment On January 18, 2011, at 4:18 PM, mikecart1 wrote:

"and we'll drive to five stores just to see who has the lowest price on things like macaroni and cheese and paper towels. Never mind the gas costs -- we want to save a dime on Sprite!"

Uh, I might be the cheapest guy around but what you said makes no sense - at least to a professional saver like me. You say you drive to 5 stores to save a dime on a product. You actually spent several times more than a dime on gas. If you factor in time and place a value on it since everyone has a limited amount of time alive on Earth, you may have ripped yourself off.

:o]

• ###### Report this Comment On January 19, 2011, at 6:18 AM, XMFPhila100 wrote:

Hi mikecart1,

I meant it facetiously. :)

At times, though, our family's competition to get the lowest price -- to come home and boast, "I found Sprite for \$0.79!" -- outweighs the actual cost savings of the gas we burned

Foolish best,

Todd Wenning

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