At the helm of the Vanguard Windsor Fund, John Neff beat the market by more than 3 percentage points per year for more than 30 years. That's an incredible track record -- and the difference between $39,116 and $17,449 on a $1,000 investment, assuming a 10% average return.

Here's the master's secret: Two of those three percentage points came from dividends. So while Neff worked hard to buy cheap stocks, dividends were no less crucial to his outsized returns. That's totally cool!

To help find outstanding stocks that offered value and income, Neff used his total return ratio, defined as:

 (Analysts' expected earnings growth rate + dividend yield) / price-to-earnings ratio

Neff would compare company ratios to the market's ratio. If a company's ratio was at least 50% greater than the market's, he gave it look. If Neff's research revealed that the market misinterpreted the company's prospects, and thus created an opportunity, he purchased shares for the portfolio.

Currently, the market's total return ratio is about 0.95. (I used a Shiller P/E of 20.1, a yield of 2%, and two-year estimated earnings growth of 17.2%.) Thus, to meet Neff's criteria, a company's ratio must be greater than 1.43.

Let's see whether Neff would be interested in taking a peek at J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP) today:


2-Year Growth Estimate

Yield (%)


Total Return Ratio

J. C. Penney





Kohl's (NYSE: KSS)





Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD)





Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's and author's calculations.

It looks like J.C. Penney comes out a clear winner over the competition as a total return opportunity. Of course, it relies heavily on those earnings estimates panning out. Both Kohl's and Sears Holdings don't want to share their cash with shareholders right now. As such, neither competitor passes our test.

The Foolish bottom line
Neff's total return ratio is beautiful because it combines value and income: cheap stocks with dividend kickers. Investors can profit from multiple expansion while collecting dividend payments along the way. And as Neff showed, when done correctly, this strategy can lead to excess returns over the market. As with any metric, Neff's total return ratio is just a starting point. But with a total return ratio of 2.72, J.C. Penney certainly seems like a totally cool stock to get to know.

Million Dollar Portfolio associate advisor David Meier does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. He does know that Income Investor has plenty of great ideas that can generate excellent total returns. You can take a trial here. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.