Revisiting Bad Dividend Advice

A little over two years ago I commented on an article recommending people buy Frontier Communications because it had a high dividend yield of 9.6%. I explained that choosing a stock simply because it has a high yield is a bad idea. I wrote that “dividend growth investing”  (or DGI) is a subset of “dividend investing”, and why it was better than simply chasing yield. I also outlined the general criteria that DGI investors use to select stocks. Even though I put most of my money into dividend ETFs, I still think DGI is the way to go and is a good method for selecting stocks. I think that what has happened to Frontier Communications over the past two years shows that.

First off: They are no longer paying their dividend on their common stock. Their last dividend was announced on October 17, 2017, and paid on December 15, 2017. According to their press release page, the only dividend since then was on their preferred stock. I think we can ignore this for a few reasons:

  1. The October 17, 2017 announcement was for both common and preferred stock.
  2. Most people (and institutional investors) buy more common stock than preferred stock.
  3. The article I was responding to in 2016 did not mention preferred stock, so I assume they were talking about common stock.

They started paying dividends in 1972 to 1998, with a few cuts along the way. Then, a telecommunications company stopped paying dividends during the dot-com boom. They resumed in 2004. There were a few dividend raises, but not enough to meet even a DGI threshold of 5 years, which is the lowest I have seen from any DGI investor. But there were more freezes and cuts than raises. They also had a reverse split in 2017, which is never a good sign. If you look waaaaaay at the bottom, there is a row for 2018 that says “Dividend omitted.” I admit, I did not see the row for 2018 at first. Probably because they put it at the bottom out of order.

Here is their dividend data from their web site:

Year Div In Cents
Total dividends in 2017 3.441667
Total dividends in 2016: 6.30
Total dividends in 2015: 6.30
Total dividends in 2014: 6.00
Total dividends in 2013: 6.00
Total dividends in 2012: 6.00
Total dividends in 2011: 11.25
Total dividends in 2010: 13.125
Total dividends in 2009: 15.00
Total dividends in 2008: 15.00
Total dividends in 2007: 15.00
Total dividends in 2006: 15.00
Total dividends in 2005: 15.00
Total dividends in 2004: 37.50

If you were hoping to get bailed out by capital gains (never a good idea), you were disappointed there too. On February 1, 2016, the stock was around $70. It peaked at $84 in April, 2016. It hit $70 in August, 2016, and just kept dropping. Now it is at about $7.69. Granted, I always say that price alone is not important, but a drop from $84 to $7 is bad. But I think the DGI criteria are a good signal of the health of a company. A lot of people invest based on price, and they think that a fall in price is a problem. The reality is that a fall in price is the result of underlying problems.

The drop in price would not be a surprise if you looked at their cash flow statements. According to Morningstar, here is their net income from their cash flow statements for the past 10 quarters:

Quarter Profit or (Loss) in Millions
2015-12 (103)
2016-03 (186)
2016-06 (27)
2016-09 (80)
2016-12 (80)
2017-03 (75)
2017-06 (662)
2017-09 (38)
2017-12 (1029)
2018-03 20

So in 2018, they made $20 million, after spending two years losing $2.2 billion. Good times.

A lot of indexers might look at this company and point to it as an example of why dividend investing is a bad idea. People need to realize that DGI investors do not simply chase yield. DGI investors look at the cash flow, the payout ratio and the dividend history. Using the DGI criteria is not a guarantee, but it increases the odds of success. You cannot just point to an individual stock and say to someone, “If you put money in that stock, you would have lost all of it! Therefore, your style does not work!” That objection assumes that a DGI investor would have put money into a bad stock, like Frontier Communications. I think for Frontier, using DGI criteria would have saved an investor from disaster.

Big Jim likes sustainable cash flow.

“DGI” can refer to “dividend growth investing” or “dividend growth investor”, and yes, sometimes I write “DGI investor”, which could be redundant.

Image from Memgenerator, assumed allowed under Fair Use. I have no idea if the misspelling of “advice” is intentional.

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Post created on 2018-05-28_16:44:08, last modified on 2018-05-28_16:44:08

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