Buy and hold? No, it should be sell and buy back later

Historically, the month of February is the when financial results of those companies whose Financial Year (FY) ends in December release their FY results. Then at around the 2nd half of April, it is when companies start holding annual general meetings (AGMs). And by the time when stocks go ex-dividend, it should be around early to mid-May. It is a long wait that takes about 2½ calendar months. This is almost 25% of the whole calendar year. For many people, it may be far too long. If nothing happens in between, well and good. We will get our dividends ultimately. As a whole, Singapore blue-chip companies pay very good dividends of around 3.5 to 5%, perhaps a bit higher than HK companies, and certainly much higher than many Japanese companies. With a relatively high yield, there is incentive to hold stocks for dividend. Certainly, this is one of the key reasons why we hold stocks for a long, long time. It is also coherent with Warren Buffet’s buy-and-hold strategy.

For those who have been dedicated followers of Warren Buffet (WB), the game plan is to buy an undervalue stock, hold the stock long enough in hope that the stock value surpasses its intrinsic value and, in the meantime, continue to wait for dividends year after year. Hopefully there is no need to sell the stock and that was why WB mentioned that one should have the conviction to hold a stock forever. There is nothing magical about this strategy. Especially in the American context, whereby the market capitalization of some companies are so huge that they are higher than the GDP of some small economies. As the world largest economy, it has sufficient power both politically and economically to influence how we do our business. Thus, if we invest correctly, for example to put money in the FAANG stocks, our wealth would have multiplied many times. Just 25 years ago, the Dow Jones was around 4,000. Today, it is 26,000. It has multiplied more than 6 times breaking new highs in countless number of times. So, buy-and-hold strategy should work in such a business environment. But can that be said of Singapore stocks? Twenty-five years ago, in 1994, our STI was at about 2,400. Today, it is at 3,200. It has risen only 30% over 25 years, and this is when many blue-chip companies, in particular the banks, were reporting record earnings. And, yet at this time, we are nowhere within the striking distance from the high of 3,875 in October 2007. Of course, different time frames will yield different comparison results but the stark difference in this comparison is good enough to show that buy-and-hold strategy may not work as well in Singapore as in the US.

For one, we are a driven economy. Stock prices, in particular, of those blue chips are especially sensitive to external news. The on-going trade war between the two world largest economies, the US and China, is a blatant example. In the first quarter of 2019, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction, the STI was floating around the level of 3,200. Then it started to move up as we draw nearer to book closure dates of most companies, peaking around end April 2019. The ascent in stock prices in the month of April is indeed pricing in the dividend distribution. By end April, stock prices have peaked and some have already started to fall. And by the time when the stocks go ex-dividend, the fall just before and just after a stock goes ex-dividend would more or less equal to the dividend distribution.

Now, the question is should one sell a dividend stock before the dividend distribution and buy it back later or should one simply hold it through the dividend distribution. Personally, I think many would go for the latter decision, ie. to take dividends. After all, dividend distribution is a certainty once declared. People like certainties. And that is why people are willing to place their money in fixed deposits (FDs) offering at 1-2% than to put their money in stocks providing them a return of somewhere between -5% and 20%, even though the odds is still higher than the FDs. Furthermore, taking dividend gives them their deserving rights to declare how much they have received in terms of dividends for the financial year.

But this may not necessary be the best way to take advantage of dividend distribution. It is like a game of majong (a chinese table tiles game). There is no one fixed way of winning the game. Just take OCBC as an example. On 1st April, the share price opened at $11.11, and closed on 30th April at $12.10. This price difference of $1 per share would have easily covered the dividend distribution of 23 cents per share and to pay for the brokerage plus all other charges for the sell and buy back executions. Of course, one has to be aware that it may not be worthwhile for a small trade lot of 100 shares due to the imposed minimum brokerage by brokerage houses. But, certainly, a quantity of 1000 shares would be sufficient to tip this balance. All this are within our predictions and that was why I mentioned in the last post on OCBC scrip dividend that the share price is likely to be high at the point of conversion as the date is near to book closure. Given this time when the trade-war, between the two largest economies that started in mid-2018, is beginning to bite into the real economy, shares prices are less likely to maintain its upward march or even remains unchanged after the dividend distribution. Certainly, the announcement of US tariff on the additional $200b worth of China’s goods on 10th May 2019 accelerated all that. And by now, many blue-chip stocks have already sunk to some extent, and probably more going forward, at least in the short term. In fact, the fall in the share price probably could equate to several times of the dividend distribution. By the end of trading day on 17th May 2019, OCBC shares closed at $11.15, even below the price when their financial results were announced on 22 February. Many other blue-chip stocks also exhibited the same price movements in the same period.

For those who had sold their stocks before they go ex-dividend, they are having their last laugh. President Donald Trump had shot down some high-flying ducks for easy picks on the ground. While their compatriots are away as in the saying “Go away in May”, pre-dividend sellers are probably on look-out to buy back the stocks that they had sold. With the remainder, they can buy more stocks than what the dividends can provide to create a quasi-scrip dividend as I had mentioned in my last post on OCBC scrip dividend. And certainly, a sumptuous dinner to go along with it.

Disclaimer – The above points are based on the writer’s opinion. They do not serve as an advice or recommendation for readers to buy into or sell out of the mentioned securities. Everyone should do his homework before he buys or sells any securities. All investments carry risks.

Brennen has been investing in the stock market for 30 years. He trains occasionally and is a managing partner for BP Wealth Learning Centre. He is the instructor for two online courses on InvestingNote – Value Investing: The Essential Guide and Value Investing: The Ultimate Guide. He is also the author of the book – “Building Wealth Together Through Stocks” which is available in both soft and hardcopy.

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