After enough twists and turns and stops and starts to make a grown man sob, we're nearing the end of our high-growth study with an innocuous bent. Despite a "rule breaking" start -- writing that we would consider (partly by necessity) mostly high-growth companies that lacked Dividend Reinvestment Plans (Drips) -- we're ending by strongly favoring buying a company only through a Drip, and only one of our high-growth finalists offers a fee-friendly Drip, or a Drip at all.
Why, late in this study, have we cooled on the idea of buying a stock without using a Drip? For logical reasons.
First, we realize how low fees do add up, and one of the objectives of this portfolio is to avoid all commissions possible and thereby maximize our return. We want our money working for us, not financing a brokerage house's annual holiday party. Free Drips are hard to beat for avoiding commissions.
Second, the pseudo-Drip-offering brokers, such as ShareBuilder and BUYandHOLD, are young and, as we've seen, they're apparently still figuring out what range of commissions will make them viable long-term businesses. These stock-buying services are excellent for investors who wish to buy several non-Drip offering stocks each month, in at least moderate dollar amounts that keep commissions below 2% to 2.5% (at most) of each total purchase, but for us, with only $100 per month to invest, the fees at these services are prohibitive.
Third, this is the Drip Portfolio. Our modus operandi is... well, Drips. I've been happy to experiment with the idea of leaving our self-imposed boundaries and buying something extra flashy that lacked a Drip, but given months to consider that idea, I now find it less compelling. Again, the fees would add up and the brokerage services that we'd use might continue to have changing costs.
Fourth, the "flashy" companies on our high-growth list that lack Drips are typically unproven, being so young, so the risks of eventual disappointment are higher.
Finally, the lack of a dividend offered by any of our high-growth contenders except for the one with the Drip has become a consideration, too, even though it wasn't meant to be at the outset. Earning dividend income and reinvesting it is one aspect of our strategy, and it's a strategy that over decades -- or, in fact, for as long as stocks have traded -- has proven to be highly effective. Dividends already account for 19.6% of this portfolio's gains (we've received $147 in dividends thus far in our young life), and that doesn't include what the dividends have earned by being reinvested. In short, dividends are important.
So, where does this leave us in our high-growth study? It leaves us with Paychex (Nasdaq: PAYX) as the far-and-away top candidate. Paychex has a fee-friendly Drip (after flirting with an expensive one that pushed us away); it pays a dividend with about a 1% yield; it is growing earnings greater than 25% annually; it has the highest margins and return on equity of our candidates; it has a long, impressive history; it still has many possibilities to grow; finally, it has a business and competitors that we believe we understand and can continue to understand.
All in all, quite nice.
Our other high-growth finalists are:
Millennium Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: MLNM)
Genentech (NYSE: DNA)
Openwave Systems (Nasdaq: OPWV)
Redback Networks (Nasdaq: RBAK)
Trex (NYSE: TWP)
Mercury Interactive (Nasdaq: MERQ)
Concord EFS (Nasdaq: CEFT)
eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY)
Ariba (NYSE: ARBA)
Cutting three more companies
Several of these companies remain on the list simply because we haven't talked about them for a long time. Given recent events, we can remove some without much additional thought.
Young Ariba has fallen to $4 -- penny-stock land; even if it hadn't fallen, its lack of history, profits, and its purely speculative outlook (by necessity) all conspire to make us run away, as we hinted early this year. Ariba! Ariba! No Speedy Gonzalez jokes for us.
Mercury Interactive has continued to make money in 2001, growing earnings more than 50% year-over-year, although it lowered guidance for the current quarter (it's hard not to in this environment and with online companies hurting so much -- Mercury sells website monitoring and testing software). Either way, as Mike Trigg concluded, most software stocks aren't good Drips. Unless you're Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), product life cycles are short and competition is intense. If you're looking for a 16-year investment, as we are, most software companies don't offer much security or fit the mold.
Trex is the youngest company on the list, only a few years old. It sells man-made decking material that looks like wood. Fools have written us saying that they love the maintenance-free product and they see it becoming more popular in their neighborhood. Yet, Trex, having just gone public in 1999, has seen sales decline over the first six months of this year, from $75 million last year to $69 million. The company is blaming the weather and the poor economy.
We believe that a "revolutionary" product should sell well early on despite the weather and despite a less-than-robust but still decent economy. Trex believes the worst is behind it, but even so, what is the 16-year potential when sales of the new product are flat after just a few years? Also of equal importance and concern are the financials: Although Trex cleared only $287,000 in income the last quarter, the company has $0 cash and equivalents, $10 million in current long-term debt, $6 million in other long-term debt, and is drawing on a $64 million line of credit. It's not in any position where we'd like to buy it.
These three companies are cut, leaving six to address. We'll return next week with hopes of making our buy decision before September. To discuss these companies and this column, visit us on the Drip Companies board. Ariba! Ariba! Fool on!
Of the stocks mentioned, Jeff Fischer owns eBay. He also owns a garlic press, in case you were wondering. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.