I've got bad news for you, dividend investors. You're losing. And as long as the bull market continues, you're going to continue to lose.
Since the catastrophic financial and housing collapse of 2008, investors have latched onto dividend stocks like so much flotsam in the aftermath of the Titanic's crash. It's been so extreme that it's inspired multiple Fool writers to muse about the presence of a dividend bubble.
In the midst of all of this, we're in the middle of a bull market. And if one thing is clear, companies that pay higher dividends tend to underperform in bull markets.
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
It's no exception this time around. Since the beginning of 2009, stocks paying a low dividend or no dividend at all have returned 94% on average, while stocks with a higher yield have climbed just 88%. And that's a dividend-adjusted return, mind you. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI ) , which is weighted toward the very largest companies -- most of which are dividend-payers -- has lagged even further.
This is your challenge
United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) are a couple great dividend stocks. Going back to 1995, both stocks have produced outstanding returns -- United Technologies has had compounded annual returns of 17%, while P&G has delivered a none-too-shabby 11%. Both are large companies today, which might lead some to conclude that the days of attractive returns are behind them, but both were already among the largest companies back in 1995. Today, they still stand out as high-quality, well-run businesses that seem poised to continue delivering attractive returns to investors.
But consider, for a moment, a stock such as Buffalo Wild Wings (Nasdaq: BWLD ) that has no dividend to speak of. The company behind the stock is a very successful, fast-growing, wing-themed restaurant chain. The business produces a handsome amount of cash flow, but dividends -- or share buybacks for that matter -- would be imprudent because the company spends a lot on growing the business.
While B-Dubs doesn't offer its investors a dividend payout, its blazing-hot growth can lead to days like Feb. 8, when the stock jumped 17% in a single day thanks to blowout earnings. For the fourth quarter, earnings grew 33% from the prior year and management projected that next year earnings will grow another 20%.
For many of the very best dividend-paying stocks, you're just not going to see numbers like those. The longer the bull market continues, the more opportunities dividend stock investors will have to feel like they're missing out on as growth-focused, dividend-free stocks give their shareholders that wonderful "rich in a day" feeling.
Hang in there!
To be clear, dividend stocks aren't the right answer for everyone all the time. Though I'm a big fan of dividends myself, I also use different strategies for part of my personal portfolio. And with a nod to Fool co-founder David Gardner and the great team at Motley Fool Rule Breakers, if dividend stocks were the only way to beat the market, then somebody forgot to tell them, because that newsletter has absolutely smashed its benchmark.
But for those who do want to stick with dividend stocks, here's the good news: The selling points that have drawn so many to dividend stocks are true (except the part about eternal youth, sorry).
I started this article by noting that stocks that pay little or no dividend have, on average, beaten higher-payout stocks during bull markets. That's true, but when markets turn, the converse is true, and sometimes to an even greater degree. During the down market from 2000 to 2003, the average higher-yield dividend stock returned a positive 32%, while the average low or no dividend stock lost 19%. During the sharp plunge from 2008 to 2009, the higher dividend group lost 31%, but the low or no dividend group lost 43%. And it's worth noting that the higher dividend group was hurt by the fact that it included many of the hardest-hit financial companies.
But it gets even better.
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
As that graphic shows, when it comes to the median stock return, the higher-dividend group beats the low or no dividend group through every period, bull and bear alike. And at the same time, in both bull and bear markets, dividend stocks are more likely to deliver positive returns for investors.
Add that all up and we once again confirm why dividend stocks are the choice for investors looking for reliable, consistent returns.
The long road to dividend greatness
Many investors swearing by dividend stocks right now will inevitably get lured into other areas of the market. Sadly, many will likely be lured to the flavor of the week just before the next market turn and will end up making that cringe-inducing mistake of buying high and selling low.
But you don't have to be part of that group. Figure out why you're investing in dividend stocks. Focus on the longer time frames over which dividend stocks tend to excel. And rather than just thinking about it today, write it down somewhere so you can refer back to the "whys" of what you're doing when you're tempted to chase recent hot stocks.
Where to invest specifically? For investors who want a good one-stop shop for dividends, there's the great Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE: VIG ) . For individual stocks, I've named a couple above, but you can get a basketful of additional ideas from The Motley Fool's special report: "Secure Your Future With 11 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks." You can grab a free copy by clicking here.