My Small-Cap Dividend Growers Are More Miss Than Hit So Far

 | Apr 26, 2017 | 11:00 AM EDT
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Just under four months since inception (Jan. 4), my 2017 Small-Cap Dividend Growers Portfolio is showing signs of improvement, but is still down 0.6%. It still is trailing both the Russell 2000 and Russell Microcap Indexes, which are up 3.7% and 1.4 %, respectively.

Value, which is the focus of this portfolio, continues to underperform growth. While the Russell 2000 Growth and Russell Microcap Growth Indexes are up 7% and 3.7%, respectively, their value counterparts, the Russell 2000 Value and Russell Microcap Value Indexes, are up 0.8% and down 0.1%, respectively.

The premise of this portfolio rests on the belief that dividends represent more than just cash returned to shareholders. While companies can fool investors by massaging earnings or announcing stock buybacks and not following through, dividend payouts are hard to manipulate.

In my view, raising a dividend year in and year out is a good indication not only of a company's financial health, but also of a confident management team. Firms can't fake dividend hikes, at least not for very long. Companies that raise payouts to the point of unsustainability risk needing to cut their dividends eventually, which is rarely good for a stock. In a way, dividend payouts create a system of checks and balances. This is certainly not a short-term strategy.

The level of dividend yield is not a primary focus of this strategy; at inception, the average yield was about 1.5%. The portfolio is heavier on financials (banks and insurance) than I would have preferred, but that comes with the territory.

At this writing, just 11 of the 25 names in the 2017 Small-Cap Dividend Growers Portfolio are in positive territory since inception. By way of reminder, the screening criteria are as follows:

  • $500 million to $2 billion in market capitalization
  • Dividend increases in at least each of the past five years
  • Long-term debt-to-equity ratios below 50%
  • Dividend-payout ratios below 50% for the trailing 12 months and last two fiscal years

"Winners" so far include Quaker Chemical (KWR) (up 12.8%), 1st Source (SRCE) (+12.3%), Franklin Electric (FELE) (+12.2%), Chesapeake Utilities (CPK) (+11.8%), Sandy Spring Bancorp (SASR) (+11.8%), Badger Meter (BMI) (+9.9%), and Stepan Company (SCL) (+9.4%).

The biggest "losers" include Ensign Group (ENSG) , (down 15.8%), FBL Financial Group (FFG) (-11.8%), Cardinal Financial (CFNL) (-11.1%), Stock Yards Bancorp (SYBT) (-10.3%), Cass Information Systems (CASS)  (-9.8%), Community Trust (CTBI) ,( -9.7%), U.S. Physical Therapy (USPH) (-7.1%), EMC Insurance Group (EMCI) (-6.5%), Independent Bank Corp (INDB) (-6.5%), Farmers and Merchants Bancorp (FMCB) (-6.2%).

Rounding out the portfolio are Gorman-Rupp (GRC) (down 4.9%), Standard Motor Products (SMP) (-4.9%), WesBanco (WSBC) (-4.8%), Tennant (TNC) (-0.1%), Primoris Services (PRIM) (up 0.6%), Atrion (ATRI) (+2.3%), International Speedway (ISCA) (+4%), and BancFirst (BANF) (+7.4%).

Granted, following this portfolio is a bit like watching the grass grow -- not a whole lot of short-term excitement -- but that's how potentially longer-term successful investment strategies are born.

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