Why Rising Dividends in Big Pharma May Be Bad News for Investors

Rising dividends are often great news for investors, but it can mean something completely different when big pharma dividends start rising.

May 2, 2014 at 2:10PM

According to research firm FactSet, which issues a quarterly report on dividend payouts within the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC), 418 of the S&P's 500 components paid a dividend in the fourth quarter. Not only did this mixture of 500 large- and medium-cap companies pay a dividend, but the average payout rose 11.8% over the fourth quarter of 2012 with $80.6 billion being divvied out to shareholders.


Source: Stockmonkeys.com, Flickr

Why dividends are rising
This robust increase in dividend payouts has been based on two bifurcating factors. First, the U.S. economy is rebounding and a number of sectors are taking part in the recovery. Although Wednesday's slow GDP growth may not tell the full tale as the polar vortex cramped growth in the first quarter, a dramatically improved jobs market and historically low lending rates are doing their job and demonstrate strong underlying growth prospects.

On the other hand, as this recovery matures, select sectors are having trouble finding new avenues of quick growth. Instead, they're turning to cost-cutting and shareholders incentives such as share buybacks (which hit their second-highest level ever in 2013) and dividend increases in order to appease investors.

Under normal circumstances bigger dividends should be applauded by investors -- and rightly so. According to ABC News' Susanna Kim, 90% of all nominal growth in the S&P 500 between 1910 and 2010 was a result of dividend yield and dividend growth. Dividends provide retirees with supplemental income that can be crucial to their well-being while it provides a means to compound big gains for younger generations of investors.

But a rising dividend isn't always great news.

Source: Tax Credits, Flickr

Why rising dividends can be deceptive
I know this goes against everything we at The Motley Fool would usually instill in investors. In essence, the idea that dividends are a sign of a healthy and stable business, and that rising dividends are a good thing as it means more shared money in shareholders' pockets. But a rising dividend in a big pharmaceutical stock can also mean something entirely different. It could mean the company in question has run out of ideas on how to effectively deploy its capital and is using that dividend to appease investors -- and that can be a long-term problem if a company's product pipeline doesn't come through with new products.

Let's take a look at Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) for example. Since cutting its dividend in half to $0.16 in 2009 when it announced the purchase of Wyeth, Pfizer has boosted its dividend with some regularity. As of the latest quarter, Pfizer was paying out $0.26 per share. Since 2010, however, following Wyeth's inclusion in its full-year results, the company's top-line has deteriorated by 8.7% per year. This is primarily a cause of patent expirations on key drugs such as cholesterol-fighting medication Lipitor, the best-selling drug in the world in terms of all-time sales.

Now keep in mind, this isn't to say that Pfizer isn't making an effort to deploy its capital for the benefit of its shareholders, or that it doesn't have a few tricks up its sleeve. For instance, Pfizer has been trying to court AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) in an effort to bring two companies together that have what I believe the other desires. If combined, the cost savings from reducing overlapping businesses could be huge. 

Pfizer also has palbociclib in its pipeline, a breakthrough designated therapy that in phase 2 advanced breast cancer trials improved progression-free survival by 10 months to 20.2 months. In other words, Pfizer isn't exactly sitting on its hands, either.

Yet, with its top-line falling in the wake of patent expirations I'd point out that Pfizer boosting its dividend with consistency might not be the wisest use of its cash and could be luring in unsuspecting high-yield seeking investors who aren't as familiar with the ebb-and-flow nature of the pharmaceutical sector or patent expiration periods. 

We've also seen a similar story play out with Merck (NYSE:MRK). On the surface it might appear that Merck has grown like wildfire over the past decade, but the majority of its growth came from its acquisition of Schering-Plough in 2010. Since 2011, though, its total revenue has fallen each year due to the loss of key patented drugs, all while its dividend has steadily increased. It could wind up being a potentially unwise use of cash flow if a couple of blockbusters don't step forward for Merck.

Of course, like Pfizer it's not as if Merck isn't trying to deliver for shareholders. A cornerstone of Merck's future could be MK-3475, an anti-PD1 therapy that wowed investors in treating advanced melanoma with a progression-free survival rate of 36 weeks and an overall survival of 81% of patients after a year. So again, Merck still has plenty of pipeline promise, but these dividend increases could be covering up Merck's recent lack of top-line growth.

Now, make no mistake; I'm not saying dividends or dividend increases are bad. In fact, in many instances they're great for shareholders. But in those rare instances when a company is struggling to find avenues for growth and is cash flow rich, investors need to be vigilant in questioning the motive behind a growing dividend.

If sustainable high-yielding dividends are what you're after, then have a look at these handpicked dividend stocks by our top analysts
The smartest investors know that dividend stocks simply crush their non-dividend paying counterparts over the long term. That's beyond dispute. They also know that a well-constructed dividend portfolio creates wealth steadily, while still allowing you to sleep like a baby. Knowing how valuable such a portfolio might be, our top analysts put together a report on a group of high-yielding stocks that should be in any income investor's portfolio. To see our free report on these stocks, just click here now.

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

©1995-2014 The Motley Fool. All rights reserved. | Privacy/Legal Information