Thursday, September 27, 2012

The "dividend tax" cliff approaches: Implications for stocks

A great deal has been written about the "fiscal cliff" that US taxpayers, investors and companies are faced with at the end of this year. Put simply, all of the tax changes made in 2002 and 2003 expire at that time, and the tax code will, in large part, revert to what it was prior to those changes. I will leave it to others to debate the macro economic implications of going over the cliff but I want to focus on one "segment" of the code that has implications to valuation.

In 2003, the tax code was altered to bring the tax rate on dividend income down to 15%, to match the tax rate on capital gains. That was, in a sense, a revolutionary move, at least for the US, since dividends had been taxed much more heavily than capital gains for much of the previous century. I did write a paper in 2003 about the potential implications of the tax law change for businesses that you can read. In effect, I argued that the tax change would have a positive effect on stock prices, that the effect would be greater for "high" dividend paying stocks than for non-dividend paying stocks and that corporate dividend policy would be altered by the change. Now that there is the possibility that the law will be reversed, it is time to revisit the issue.

Dividends, Expected Returns and Stock Prices: Why taxes matter...
To understand the impact of investor taxes on dividends, let's begin by looking at how  you would price stocks in a world where interest income, dividend income and capital gains are not taxed. Let's assume that the risk free rate is 1.5% and that stocks are collectively paying a dividend yield of 2%. To induce you, as a risk averse investor, to invest in stocks, you would need to be offered a premium (at least on an expected basis) over the risk free rate. Let's assume that you would demand a premium of 4.5%, after personal taxes, to shift from the riskfree asset to risky equities. Thus, you would need to earn a 6% return (1.5%+4.5%), after personal taxes, to invest in stocks. Since this is a world with no taxes, your pre-tax expected return would also by 6%; with a dividend yield of 2%, the expected price appreciation on stocks would have to be 4%.

Now, introduce a uniform tax rate of 15% on interest income, dividend income and capital gains into this world. Since you need to earn 6% after taxes, you would need to earn 7.06% before taxes:
Expected pre-tax return = Expected after-tax return/ (1- Uniform tax rate) = 6%/ (1-.15) = 7.06%
Thus, if stocks continue to pay a 2% dividend, the expected price appreciation would need to 5.06%. The higher required return would mean that stock prices would have to drop, relative to what they were in a world with no taxes. With the existing tax law, we are close to this tax regime (with the only difference being that interest income is taxed at a higher tax rate). This is close to the current tax regime.

Let's now change to law to reflect what the tax rate will be on January 1, 2013, if we do revert back to pre-2003 levels. The tax rate on dividends, for individual investors, will revert back to the ordinary income tax rate. At the margin, for unmarried (married - joint filing) investors generating more than $ 85,650 ($142,700) and  in income, that rate will be close to 35% (counting just Federal taxes and incorporating the additional taxes that the new health care law will impose on dividends and other investment income) and approach 40% for those with income levels exceeding $178,650 ($217,450). The tax rate on long term capital gains will also go up, but only to the 20% rate that prevailed prior to 2003. If companies continue with a dividend yield of 2% and the price appreciation stays at the 5.06%, investors will earn a much lower after-tax return:
After-tax return with pre-2003 tax rates = 2%(1-.40) + 5.06% (1-.20) = 5.25%
If investors risk preferences have not changed, they will have to want to continue to earn 6% after taxes, but the pre-tax return would have to increase to compensate for the higher taxes. In fact, if we assume that the dividend yield stays fixed at 2%, we can solve for the required price appreciation
2% (1-.40) + X (1-.20) = 6%
Solving for X, we get a required pre-tax price appreciation of 6% and a required pre-tax return of 8%. That would translate into a significant drop in stock prices.

Making it real: The dividend cliff and the S&P 500
To make this less abstract, let's work with some real numbers. At the start of every month, I back out the expected return on stocks from the level of the index (S&P 500) and expected cash flows. At the start of September 2012, when the S&P 500 was at 1406.58, I computed an expected return on stocks of 7.30% (yielding an equity risk premium of 5.75% over the risk free rate of 1.55%). This expected return is what investors are demanding on a pre-tax basis on stocks. Since the current dividend yield on the S&P 500 is about 2.01%, the expected price appreciation on a pre-tax basis is 5.29%. Since both dividends and capital gains are taxed at 15%, under the pre-cliff tax law, the post tax return is 6.21%:
After-tax return in September 2012 with current tax law = 2.00% (1-.15) + 5.29% (1-.15) = 6.21%
Now, let's assume that investors will continue to demand this after-tax return in 2013, that the tax laws revert back to pre-2003 levels and that companies continue to maintain a dividend yield of 2.01%:
2.01% (1-.40) + Expected pre-tax price appreciation (1-.20) = 6.21%
The expected pre-tax price appreciation would have to be 6.25% and the required return on a pre-tax basis would have to be 8.26% on the S&P 500, yielding an equity risk premium of 6.71% over the riskfree rate of 1.55%. Holding the cash flows the same and changing the equity risk premium to 6.71% yields a value of 1201.22 for the S&P 500, a drop of about 14.60% in the index from current levels. If you don't agree with the assumptions I have made, not a big deal. I have attached the spreadsheet that I used and you can compute your own estimate.

Differential impact: High dividend versus non-dividend paying stocks
Note, though, that the effect of the reversal in the tax law will not be uniform, since every company does not have a dividend yield of 2%. Companies with high dividend yields, that continue to pay those dividends, will see expected returns increase more and stock prices drop by a more significant margin. In the graph below, I have compute the percentage change in stock prices you can expect in stocks with dividend yields of 0% to 4%.

Note that the stocks with the 4% dividend yield, holding all else constant, will see stock prices drop by 18%,, whereas the stocks with the 0% dividend yield will see a price drop of only 7%.  Again, you can use the spreadsheet and alter my assumptions, if you so desire, and compute the effect on any individual stock.

The Weak Links
This analysis suggests that a sharp correction is ahead for stocks collectively and especially so for high dividend paying stocks. It is, however, based on a set of assumptions about tax law and markets that may not be correct.   So, what are the weakest links in this analysis?
1. There is no chance that the fiscal cliff will become reality: This is not the first time that we have faced the possibility of the tax laws reverting back to pre-2003 levels. At the end of 2011, faced with the possibility, Congress and the administration pushed off the day of reckoning at the last moment. It is possible that faced with the catastrophic consequences of going over the cliff, Congress will find a way to avoid it again, but is it guaranteed? Having seen the political dysfunction at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue over the last decade, I am not as confident as others may be that common sense will prevail and that the cliff will be avoided.
2. Not all investors pay taxes on investment income: In my analysis, I used the tax rates on wealthy individual investors to make my assessment, but tax rates vary widely across investors. There are two critiques that can be mounted. The first is that about 60-70% of stocks are held by non-individuals: mutual funds, pension funds and corporations and the tax rates that these investors may not be affected (or at least not as much) by the change in the tax law. The second is that companies that pay high dividends attract investors who like those high dividends and it is possible that these investors make less income and face less of a hit from the change in the tax law.  Note, though, that even if we factor in these investors, the basic analysis still holds but the impact will be lightened. In fact, one way to alter the analysis is to take a weighted average tax rate across all investors in the market, which would buffer the impact. The graph below estimates the effect on the market, stocks with a dividend yield of 4% and stocks with a dividend yield of 0% of assuming lower tax rates in the post-cliff period.
3. Investors may already have built in the expectation that tax laws will change into current stock prices: To the extent that the fiscal cliff has been in the news and widely reported, it is possible that the market has already incorporated the possibility of it coming to fruition into stock prices and the expected return. I would have been inclined to believe this if I had seen the equity risk premium climb, and stock prices drop, over the course of the year, but they have not. In fact, we started the year with a much higher equity risk premium of 6.04% and have seen the premium drift down to 5.75%.
4. Companies may change their dividend policy: I did predicate my analysis on companies maintaining their dividends at 2012 levels, even if the tax law changes to tax dividends more highly in 2013. In fact, if companies were completely flexible, they could stop paying dividends and largely nullify the impact of the tax law change. History suggests that this is unlikely. If there is a word that best describes dividends, it is that they are "sticky", i.e.. that companies are reluctant to change dividends and especially to cut them. In fact, the 2003 law did not to lead to a surge in dividends (though a few companies pay special dividends in the immediate aftermath) and I don't think that a reversal of the law will lead to a sudden reassessment of dividend policy.

Bottom line:  I may be overly pessimistic, but the dividend cliff scares me and I am planning for the eventuality that the tax code will change drastically on January 1, 2013. I am and will continue pruning my portfolio, shifting my money from large dividend-paying US stocks to non-dividend paying or low-dividend paying foreign stocks. I won't go overboard and sell short/ buy puts on high dividend paying stocks. After all, the dividend tax effect is one of many forces that will affect equity markets over the next few months and it is possible that one of these effects will drown out the tax effect.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Inspiration or Insanity? Fed action and Market Reaction

The big news of last week was the Federal Reserve's announcement of QE3, i.e.,  that it would buy $40 billion worth of bonds each month until the economy was back on its feet again. The fact that the commitment was open ended (unlike  QE2 and Operation Twist, the two prior big moves by the Fed during the last three years) and directly tied to stronger employment/economy was viewed as positive by the stock market, which jumped about 2% in the two days after.  I am sure that I am missing some significant piece of the puzzle, but as I watch the news coverage and market reaction, I am reminded of one of my favorite movies, "Groundhog Day".

While we can debate the intent behind the Fed move and whether it would succeed at awakening the economy, I would posit three points (all of which I am sure are debatable):
  1. The Fed does not set market interest rates: Much as I would like to buy into the notion that the Fed sets mortgage rates, corporate bond rates and treasury rates, the only interest rate that the Fed actually sets is the Fed Funds rate, the rate at which banks trade balances at the Federal reserve. In fact, if the Fed has as much power over interest rates as we think it has, the US would not have had double digit treasury bond rates in the 1970s.
  2. The Fed’s influence on market rates is greater at the short end than at the long end of the spectrum: It is true that the Fed can influence market interest rates through its actions on the Fed Funds rate, with interest rates falling (rising) on signals of a looser (tighter) monetary policy", but that fall or rise is greatest for short term rates. It is also true, in Operation Twist and continuing into QE3, the Fed is pumping billions into the bond market with the intent of keeping longer term rates low. The bottom line though is that influence does not equate control, and the bond market is far too large for even the Fed to turn the tide (if the tide is running against what the Fed would like to do).
  3. What the Fed wants to do and what it seeks to accomplish with that action seem at war with each other: If I understand what the Fed is doing, its intent is to keep interest rates low to induce higher real growth (and lower unemployment) in the economy. There is an inherent contradiction between the Fed's action and its objective. If the economy starts growing faster, market interest rates cannot and will not stay low, no matter what the Fed does. Thus, the only way the Fed can keep interest rates low for an extended period is if low interest rates do not translate into a stronger economy.   I would argue that the the Fed's earlier moves in this recession (QE1, QE2 and Operation Twist) make this point for me. Interest rates have stayed low, with mortgage rates and corporate bond rates at historical lows, but they have done so, because the economy has stagnated. 
To address the question of whether the Fed action is good for stock prices/values, I would list three “macro” variables that underlie the valuation of all equities:
  1. The risk free rate: The first corner of the triangle is of course the risk free rate, i.e, the rate you would earn as an investor on a guaranteed investment. Holding all else constant, a lower risk free rate should translate into higher equity values. 
  2. Equity risk premium: The second corner is the equity risk premium, which is the premium that investors demand for investing in stocks as compensation for exposure to macroeconomic risk, i.e., uncertainty about real economic growth and inflation. Holding all else constant, a lower equity risk premium should translate into higher equity values. 
  3. Real Growth: The third corner is real economic growth, with higher real growth, all else held constant, translating into higher equity values.
If you hold real growth and equity risk premiums fixed, and lower interest rate, the values of all financial assets should rise. But “holding all else constant” is easier said than done.  If the risk free rate is low because real growth is expected to be low and/or because investors are fleeing to safe harbors in the face of crisis, whatever you gain from having the lower risk free rate will be overwhelmed by the increase in the equity risk premium and the lower real growth. Thus, as I noted in an earlier post, a lower risk free rate does not always translate into higher equity values. The most charitable assessment I have of the market's optimistic reaction to the Fed’s action is that the market buys, at least for the moment, into the Fed’s juggling act: that they can keep interest rates low, without increasing macroeconomic risk, while spurring real growth in the economy. I think you could point to a more likely scenario where QE3 does not do much for real growth, while leading to more uncertainty about expected inflation (and higher equity risk premiums) and the net effect on stocks is negative.

Given high unemployment and an economy stuck in neutral, you may feel that the Fed had no choice. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, right? That would be true, if QE3 were costless, but it does carry three costs:
  1. The inflation factor: The biggest cost of an expansionary monetary policy is the potential for inflation that comes with it. I know that the low inflation over the last few years has led some analysts to conclude that the inflation dragon has been slain forever.  However, history tells us that inflation is like a deadly virus, harmless as long as we can keep it trapped, but hard to control, once it escapes. Put differently, if the Fed has miscalculated and high inflation does return, the cure will be both long drawn out and extremely painful.
  2. Artificially "low" interest rates create winners and losers: If the Fed's bond buying is keeping interest rates at "artificially" low levels, not everyone wins. Among individuals, spenders are rewarded and savers are punished, a perverse consequence in a nation that already saves too little for the future. Among businesses, you reward those businesses that have to raise fresh capital, and especially those who are more dependent upon debt, and punish more mature and/or equity-focused businesses. Among sectors, you help out those that are more dependent upon debt-funded consumption (housing, durable goods) and do less for service businesses. Thus, keeping interest rates "abnormally" low may create bubbles in some sectors and encourage people to act in ways that are not good for the economy's long term health.
  3. Credibility effect: The powers of a central bank stem less from its capacity to print money (any central bank can do that) and more from its perceived independence and credibility, and I think the Fed has hurt itself on both counts. While I am willing to believe that the Fed acted without political considerations, any major action two months ahead of a presidential election will viewed through political lens, and it is natural for people to be suspicious. In addition, each time the Fed takes a shot at the "real growth" pinata and nothing happens, it damages it's credibility. Much as the market (and some economists) may welcome and justify QE3, but the ultimate test is in whether it will give a boost to real economic growth and if that does not occur, what's next? 
I was a skeptic on the efficacy of QE2 and Operation Twist and I remain unpersuaded on QE3. If the definition of insanity is that you keep trying to do the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome, then we seem to be fast approaching that point with the Fed.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A new semester begins: Valuation class online

If you are a teacher, you measure your life in quarters and semesters. This is my fiftieth semester teaching, and, as in each of the prior forty nine semesters, I could not wait to get started. Coddled as only tenured faculty at a research university can be, I have only one class to teach this semester. The class is "Valuation", and it is about valuing any asset: stocks, businesses, sports teams and collectibles are all fair game. While the class begins with an extended discussion of intrinsic (DCF) valuation , it will extend to cover multiples/comparables and real options. The first class was Wednesday, September 5, and I will teach it every Monday and Wednesday for the next 15 weeks (with a few days off in the middle) from 10.30 to 12 at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

At the start of this year, I argued that universities have used their "monopoly" status in the education business to protect themselves from needed change. I also presented my view that "disruptive" changes were coming, largely because technology has undermined the entrenched competitive advantages that have allowed universities to charge premium prices for often below-average products. I also put my class online, using a company called Coursekit, and a few thousand people enrolled in the class. While life got in the way of completing the class for some of these students, I was gratified by the feedback I got on the class and I did learn from some of my mistakes (though I undoubtedly will make more mistakes soon). Symbolizing how quickly this business is shifting, Coursekit has changed both its look and its name (it is now called Lore), raised more capital and is aiming for bigger and better things. I wish them well, but I have decided to broaden the choices available to those who would like to take my Valuation class this semester. So, if you are interested, here they are:

1. School website: I maintain a website at Stern for the class that includes everything that I do in this class: webcasts of the classes, lecture notes and quizzes/exams. You can find them all by clicking onn the link below:
The plus is that this is my first stop when I add or update anything to the class and it is the one place where you will be guaranteed to find everything to do with the class. The minus is that I am not a master at web design and the look and it shows: things are sometimes difficult to find and it is short on eye candy.

2. Lore: I will continue to teach this class on Lore, but rather than maintain two separate classes (as I did last semester), I will consolidate the class in one location. Since I will be using Lore to keep track of those who are registered and are taking the class at Stern, you will be auditing the class on Lore, if you choose this option. To join the "audtior" list, click below:
Note that you will have all of the access to materials and webcasts of the registered students. For the moment, though, you will be able to read posts and comments but you cannot post: I will work on seeing whether I can change that, to allow you to participate in discussions. The plus is that the site is much more polished than mine will ever be, but the minus is that you have to work within the Lore structure, which may not be to your liking. 

3. Apple iTunes U: As a long time Apple user, I have watched the development of Apple iTunes U with interest. What started as a site with just class videos and no interaction is evolving into something more typical of Apple: beautiful and useful at the same time. The downside, though, is that you need an Apple device to use iTunes U, preferably an iPad. If you do have one, here is what you can do:
Step 1: Go to the Apple App store and download Apple iTunes U. Don't worry. It is free.
Step 2: On your Apple device, open your email and click on the link below
Step 3: Apple iTunes U should open up and the class should be on your shelf.
Step 4: You may need to wait until I let you into the site. (I am working on making this a public course but there seem to be some barriers in place...)
The plus is that the site is dazzling in terms of beauty but the minus is that you cannot get to it on your Android or Blackberry device.

4. YouTube:  I am using a site call Symynd to provide access to the class resources to anyone who is interested in valuation. This site, which aims to democratize education, converts the webcasts into YouTube videos and provides access to the material. You can get to the site by going to:
For those of you who have trouble downloading the large lecture webcast files (150 GB and higher) that are offered on the other channels, the YouTube videos work much better, since they are compact. There is a Facebook page for the class, where you can post and respond...

I hope that one of these four channels works for you and that you can come along for the ride. As always, I am interested in finding out not only what works, but what does not. The first session of the class was last Wednesday (September 5) and you have plenty of time to catch up before the next class on Monday. I will post the webcasts on all four channels about an hour after the class ends (between 1 pm and 2 pm, New York Time, every Monday and Wednesday).