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October, 2004


In his 1998 book, How to Retire Rich, James O'Shaughnessy wrote that an investor can ignore most or all bonds and cash (or cash-like reserves such as money market funds), even as a retiree or a person approaching retirement, by concentrating one's assets in "Dogs of the Dow," "Utility Strategy," or "Core Value" stocks instead.

Most of us know about conservative utility stocks. They were supposed to pay big dividends and be safer to own than other equities. But that was before privatization ended much of the government regulation of utilities and increased their competitive (and often fiscally foolish) practices.

Utilities investors in the last decade or so have likely been wishing they had put their hard-earned funds into cash or bonds instead. O'Shaughnessy would have you take a lot of the new risk out of utilities investing by limiting the pool of such stocks, from which to select, to those with a "Value Line" safety rank of 1 (the very highest). However, there's still a problem. If one looks at the debt to equity ratios of even these supposedly safe stocks, they tend to be quite high. The dividend payout ratios (an indication of the sustainability of the company's dividend) also is generally way too lofty. Especially after we've seen a slew of "nice" companies like Enron or Worldcom implode in the last few years, even the stocks that are 1-rated for safety don't look so reassuring when their debts are too high and their dividends too risky.

The "Dogs of the Dow" strategy has received a lot of attention, but if our priority is safety of principal, a lot of the Dow stocks do not measure up much better than the utilities, again on taking into account their debt levels and payout ratios.

What about his Core Value approach? Here, I think, he may be onto a pretty good thing. It looks like a fairly safe investment strategy that is also likely over time to generate a combination of dividends plus capital gains comfortably rivaling the yield of bonds.

O'Shaughnessy wrote that, for the Core Value method, one should first look only at the "Value Line" stocks with the very best (A++) financial strength ratings. Usually only about 40 out of the 1700 stocks in the "Value Line Investment Survey" qualify for this rating, stocks like Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Home Depot.

Next, determine an average yield among these A++ stocks (currently 2.09%) and consider only those with yields above that average.

Finally, each year buy the 10 stocks, from the remaining approximately 20 (usually plus or minus 2-3), with the highest projected "Value Line" 3-5 year dividend growth.

O'Shaughnessy's financial success recipe would have the investor simply do that year after year, repeating the process over and over, following a tax favorable one-year-plus-a-day holding period. He said the average annual total return of using that approach, in the 12-year period 1985 through 1996, was about 21%, but he thought, since that was a time of unusually good equities performance, a more likely long-term average annual total return from the approach would be around 12%, still roughly 20% better than the S&P 500 Index's record, and at lower risk.

If you are persuaded by this method, the current (effective 10/12/04) Core Value top 10, assuming my calculations are correct, are:

CompanySymbol   Recent Price
1.Coca-Cola  KO$39.78
2.Colgate-Palmolive  CL$43.35
3.General Electric  GE$34.02
4.Genuine Parts  GPC$38.07
5.Kimberly-Clark  KMB$63.40
6.Lilly (Eli)  LLY$57.15
7.Pfizer, Inc.  PFE$29.86
8.Royal Dutch Petr.  RD$52.29
9.Unilever NV (NY Shs.)  UN$56.93
10.Unilever PLC ADR  UL$32.95

But, as indicated before, I would like also the assurance that the stocks I purchase for minimal risk price appreciation plus dividends, in lieu of buying bonds or cash reserves, meet the low debt and low payout ratio tests. In addition, I want assets likely to do better than the average security.

So, I have selected from the Value Line A++ assets only those with: superior dividend growth rate; debt to equity .33 or below; payout ratio .5 or below; and a 3-5 year projected total return at least 25% higher than the average.

As best I can determine, only three stocks currently meet these criteria:

CompanySymbol   Recent Price
Home Depot  HD$39.85
Intel Corp  INTC$20.28
PepsiCo, Inc.  PEP$48.29

Since this latter, more selective approach provides fewer stocks making the cut at any one time, for adequate diversification I would suggest running the screens quarterly and adding, each three months, securities that newly meet the standards. But as these are generally quite good quality assets with fine long-term prospects, in this strategy, all such assets would, in contrast to the O'Shaughnessy Core Value plan, not be sold annually but just after being held at least 3-5 years, if they then no longer meet the selection criteria.

I believe either of these approaches should, most of the time and over the long-term, do better than investing in bonds or money market accounts, and likely also would provide higher total returns than the S&P 500 Index, yet with reduced volatility.

Regarding the above suggested assets, few if any mechanical approaches to equity selection can be the last word. It is important, I think, for investors to do their own due diligence research before choosing to buy any stock or mutual fund.


Larry is not a professional. Don't take him seriously!

Actually, the investment article provided here is for general information only and should not be considered as professional advice, a solicitation to buy or sell any security, or the Word of God. Investors are encouraged to do their own research while considering their personal goals and circumstances, or consult their own professional financial advisors, before making investment decisions. Neither Larry nor LARVALBUG will be liable for any losses sustained by any visitor to this site.

(Disclosure statement: Larry and Val have holdings in some of the suggested assets but do not "make a market" in any of them and do not derive any direct benefit from recommending them, except perhaps for a bit of smug self-satisfaction.)

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