Monday 12 October 2015

The Question of Dividends as Passive Income

Recently, a friend directed me to Giraffe Value’s blog post titled “Investing For Dividend Income(Passive) is a Fairytale!!!”  The angle about dividends (that they cannot be considered passive income) brought forward by GV is refreshing indeed but I believe GV has missed out some salient points and thus decided to offer an alternative perspective in this topic by commenting in his blog. With GV's knowledge, I herewith copy my comments (with very minor edits to make things more easily understood) below. It may be helpful if you first read GV's article to understand his take on dividends.

dividend as passive income
With the CD & XD effect, are Dividends paid out still considered Passive Income to the investor?
Readers of this blog would have realized my reply are drawn out of and adheres closely to the "Business Perspective" section in my Stocks Investment Philosophy in which my investment framework is based on.

Also, as shown in my reply, I did agree with some points underscored by GV. My intention here is to bring about healthy discussions in the hope of getting more clarity in this subject matter through insights and thoughts provided by readers and investors.

Hi GV,

Good effort on your post. However, I wish to highlight an alternative viewpoint that I personally feel provides a more inclusive and comprehensive take about dividends. I believe the point of contention here is whether dividends paid out is considered ‘passive income.’ 

First and foremost, I assume that your 2 questions are valid in identifying whether passive income is involved. I would also add-on a 3rd point to make the argument more robust:

1.           Are you richer after getting that dividend?
2.           Would your capital not get compromised after you receive the dividend?
3.           Is the money received passive (as opposed to the word ‘active’).

As a fundamental investor (I think you are one as well), perhaps it is more insightful to look at holding the stock as being part-owners of the business. To avoid complication, let’s just assume that we have 100% ownership of a business. This view point can be easily extended to one who have partial ownership of the business through buying its shares in the market.

As 100% owners of a profitable business, we employ officers to add value to goods and services produced so as to generate income for us. Every dollar earned from the business wholly belongs to the owners. In the general sense, if earnings are $10M and beginning of year assets is $100M, the company is now worth $110M. Going back to the 3 questions above, It is clear that with full ownership of the business and by way of earnings generated, the owners are now 1) $10M richer and obviously 2) their capital is not compromised. Also, as the officers are the ones doing the hard work, we can conclude that 3) it is ‘passive’ in nature. With this, we can say the earnings are passive income to the owners.

The owners have the option to either keep the money in the business as retained earnings or issue the earnings out as dividends. If say, $5M of the earnings are released as dividends, the company is now worth $105M. But because the owners own the business, their net worth is still $110M ($5M dividends received plus $105M worth of business assets wholly owned by owners) which necessarily means that in totality, their net worth still increased by $10M. Is this $10M still considered passive? I argue so based on the 3 questions asked above. To the owners, these dividends are in actual fact just a proxy to get hold of the passive earnings of the company.

Your take regarding the HDB is almost exactly the same as the above scenario where it fulfils the 3 questions asked. Because in the stock market, we are partial owners of the company, we tend to consider only the dividends ($5M) and neglected the fact that the remaining $5M of the earnings fully belonged to all shareholders as well (I believe your argument missed this point too). So this $10M of earnings is akin to the rental income we get from a fully owned HDB property.

Now let’s think from the standpoint of the stock investor. Here, I would agree with you that an investor should consider both capital appreciation and dividend return but I just want to highlight that dividends in the investor's perspective are still passive income. Investor A purchase a stock a $1 and price appreciates to $2. The company subsequently declares a $0.50 dividends and share price proceeds to drop to $1.50 due to the XD effect. Investor B purchases a stock at $1 and price appreciates to $2 with no dividends declared. Both investors had a net gain of $1 from their investments. Considering both realized and unrealized gain, it is clear that they are all passive income to both investors. Having no net gain between Investor A and B does not mean there are no passive income involved.

I also agree that your left pocket right pocket - zero sum game theory makes perfect sense (but this does not mean dividends are not passive income).  Because dividends are usually paid in liquid cash out of the company, it makes sense that stock price should drop by the amount of dividends released. If not, we will find that the net worth of the investor (which includes both dividends received as well as ownership of the business) increase inexplicably. However, this effect is just a logical stock market event to ensure that - assuming other things remaining constant - the total amount of what owners received and what the business have are the same before and after the event.

To conclude, CD-XD phenomenon is just an Event which fails to explain that dividends received are not passive income but it does not necessarily mean that dividends are not passive income. Viewed in the proper way, the owner’s earnings are passive income and since dividends usually comes from owner’s earnings, they are part of the passive income in every sense of the word.

I got to your post because a friend referred it to me. Your post must have generated strong interest as I understand that there are some follow-ups in other financial blogs which mostly agree with your point that dividends are not passive income. However, I feel that if we viewed this issue as a whole, the logical (as well as intuitive) explanation contradicts the point that dividends cannot be considered passive income. We've communicated some time back and I know you are, like me, a keen learner of stock investments. Hope to hear more about investments from you.


PS: I appreciate that readers share their views about this in the comments section below. Also, GV gave an interesting reply to this comment. Readers can refer to his blog article for that and decide for themselves which view point is more valid and logical.

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