We’ve worried over the last several years whether momentum and other “alpha” factors have become exploited to the point of diminishing returns. It’s an arms race out there...
Dividends are a cornerstone of equity investing and over the decades they have produced a significant portion of the stock market’s total return. Previous Leuthold research has identified a strong dividend influence on total returns for small and midcap companies. Looking at S&P 500 constituents, we see that dividend growers outperformed companies that had flat or declining dividends – an expected outcome. However, we also found that companies not paying dividends convincingly outpaced dividend payers. This is contrary to the results in other market segments, but the explanation for this becomes apparent in the course of our research.
2019 was the fourth consecutive year of underperformance by the annual Bridesmaid sector pick. Those poor results have trimmed the annualized “alpha” of the strategy to just +2.2% since 1991.
It’s been one of the worst years on record for diversification, with our hypothetical All Asset No Authority (AANA) portfolio down 7.2% YTD through yesterday. That’s the second-worst year for AANA since 1972, and there’s probably not enough time left for performance to undercut 2008 (-24.9%) for the bottom spot.
For the fifth consecutive month, the top-three rated sectors are Health Care, Consumer Discretionary, and Info Tech. The newly launched Communication Services sector (which replaces Telecom Services) debuts with a strong ranking in fourth place. Rounding out the bottom end of the rankings are Utilities, Materials, and Real Estate.
Health Care remains the highest-rated sector followed by Info Tech and Consumer Discretionary. These sectors have ranked among the top three since June. At the low end of the rankings are Utilities, Telecom Services, and Materials, all of which have been among the bottom three positions for three consecutive months.
Consumer Discretionary has held on to the highest-rated spot for six consecutive months. Coming in last (again) is Utilities. After rating among the lowest two positions between April 2017 and April 2018, Energy finally improved and now sits in 6th place—the middle of the pack.
Companies are returning cash to investors at a level never before seen. Counting dividend payouts and outstanding share repurchases, the amount of cash returned back to investors crossed the $1 trillion mark for the first time in January 2016 (based on trailing twelve-months’ total for the largest 500 companies, Chart 1).
The S&P 500 record median profit margin of 10.3% is now almost a full percentage point above the last cycle’s peak of 9.4% (second quarter of 2007). Trends across S&P sectors are not as uniform as one might expect, though, with only half of the ten sectors last quarter at profitability levels that exceeded their 2001-2007 expansion highs.