Recently, a hotly debated question has been whether U.S. equities are expensive or approaching so-called “bubble” territory. Anytime equities are viewed as relatively cheap or expensive, it is important to note the characteristic being used to make that determination. The most widely cited characteristic that is used to stipulate that stocks are expensive is the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio. While the P/E ratio is an important valuation metric, we do not think it should be the only metric used. We suggest that an intuitive framework for answering this question could be comparing price performance (upward or downward movement of stock prices that does not account for dividend payments) to dividend growth.
WisdomTree conducts the annual rebalance of its U.S. dividend Index family in December, with the annual screening date occurring on the last trading day of November. The annual screening process provides a plethora of data about how dividends for the U.S. equity markets have changed over time and gives us important information about the underlying market fundamentals. In figure 1, we look at the Dividend Stream® for the WisdomTree Dividend Index (WTDI), WisdomTree’s broadest and most inclusive dividend Index, and compare it with the price changes for WTDI and the Russell 3000 Index.
• Record Dividend Stream Supports Prices: In 2007, the WisdomTree Dividend Index recorded what remained until November 30, 2012, its peak level of $288.5 billion. At the 2014 rebalance screening, seven years later, a new peak of $410.3 billion was recorded. This indicates approximately 42.2% cumulative growth in the indicated Dividend Stream over the period.
• Price Change Matches Dividend Growth: We find it interesting that the Russell 3000 Index price change over the same period was 43.3%. This is one way to signal that market prices have moved in tandem with dividends over the last seven years; prices did not increase relative to dividends.1
Can Dividend Growth Continue?
Firms that are not paying out all of their cash as dividends are increasingly buying back their own stock, which can lead to share reduction if their buybacks are greater than issuance. This is important to consider because those who assume that future dividend growth is going to “mean revert” and trend back to historical levels—thus supporting a claim that the market is expensive, given its below-average dividend yields —are not accounting for the net buybacks, which could be locking in future dividend growth.
Figure 2: Net Buyback Yield Greater than 2% for Four Years in a Row, Supporting Dividend Growth