Over the past few weeks, we've been giving a lot of attention to the new records that the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) and S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC ) have reached. Really, they're nothing more than psychological levels that only indicate how much stock prices have moved since the last high. The indexes we quote every day don't tell us the whole picture of just how much stocks have returned to investors.
Dividends play a key role in any return a stock generates, and we should really consider dividends when looking at markets, as well. The chart below shows the returns of both the Dow and S&P 500 since the S&P's last record high on October 9, 2007. I've also included the total return indexes, which account for dividends paid by companies in each index.
As you can see, there's a large gap in the returns of a total return index and the regular index. The Dow's gap between the dividend and non-dividend index is wider because its companies pay more in dividends than the S&P 500, which you can see has generated higher returns. Today, the SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF (NYSEMKT: DIA ) pays a 2.36% dividend yield, and the SPDR S&P 500 (NYSEMKT: SPY ) pays a 2.04% yield, so the gap continues.
A regular dividend payment forces management to focus on cash flow instead of throwing money after growth projects. This can keep them more disciplined with investors' money, which generates higher returns.
The other reason dividends are so important to investors is that they usually come from established, more value-oriented companies, not high-flying growth stocks. On average, these value dividend stocks will beat out growth stocks long term, which is what Foolish investors should be focused on.
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