Stakeholders are the better shareholders

There was some amazing news coming from Wall Street a few weeks ago. 181 CEOs, members of the so-called business roundtable and representatives of some of the largest companies in the USA, declared that maximizing shareholder value is no longer the single purpose of their companies. Instead, the emphasis would shift towards stakeholders.

I believe that many people out there don’t understand the difference between a shareholder, and a stakeholder. Or they didn’t take the manifest seriously. Otherwise, I have no reasonable explanation of why this fundamental shift in corporate management attitude doesn’t receive more coverage.

Shareholders vs. Stakeholders

The definition of a shareholder is very simple: Someone who owns shares of a company.

The definition of a stakeholder, however, can be very complicated: It’s everyone who is in direct or indirect relation with a company.

This includes the shareholders. But it also includes the employees, business partners, land-owners, basically all who are affected by the companies operations. It includes the entire eco-system in which the company is active, including the environment.

With a similar mindset to the one of thinking global and acting local, a company that takes care of its stakeholders will do its best to contribute to society in every aspect that makes sense and where the company can make an impact within the scope of its operations. Starting with its own employees, support to local governments, business partners and spreading into larger topics and areas as long as they are related to the companies business.

A holistic concept

This is a true game-changer. It acknowledges that a company, any company, carries responsibility towards society as a whole. It assumes the understanding that the companies’ employees are actually a true and real asset and require at least as much attention as its shareholders. It also acknowledges that company profits need to receive a long-term consideration that goes beyond quarterly reports.

Putting stakeholders to the front of a companies responsibilities is a holistic approach to business.

Too good to be true

I had (and still have) some serious doubts when I read the news. Especially when I noted that Jeff Bezos is a signatory of the declaration, my alarm bells went off.

The CEO of Amazon is hardly known to be a person who cares for his stakeholders. If he signs such a treaty, it automatically degrades the value of the paper it’s written on. Jeff Bezos and Amazon have gained amazing success over the years making Bezos the richest man on this planet. But his contribution to the world ends with the shopping experience.

Compared to people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, his priorities and philanthropic efforts seem almost non-existent. The most diplomatic word that would come to my mind would be “uninspiring”.

Same would account also for a few other CEOs and companies which have shown little effort in the past to take care of their stakeholders. Is this declaration really going to change it? Or is it just a PR stunt?

Shareholders will profit – in the long run

Time will tell, but I do believe that among many SMEs out there, the idea is nothing new. In fact, most family-run business and small enterprises which are not listed on the stock exchange had this approach on their business cards for a long time. It’s been the large corporations who moved into a questionable and unsustainable business mind – and it’s time that they get back on track.

Being an investor and shareholder myself, you might wonder why I applaud this change. True, some companies might have to review their supply chains, work procedures, payrolls. This might affect profit margins and ultimately the dividends that I collect every month.

But I rather see my dividends growing steadily over a period of 50 years than to read news about how the companies that I am invested in are contributing to environmental destruction, abuse of workers and handling its business partners unfairly, only to secure a slightly higher profit percentage.

The employees are at the heart of a company. Business partners and the environments are the tools, places and customers that ensure it stays in business. The way I see it, putting stakeholders first is definitely a smarter approach to do business and shareholders will profit from it on a much wider spectrum.

Why investing in Pharma makes sense

Today, let me dive a little into the topic of income-investment and why I believe that every income-focused investor should have some pharma stocks in his or her portfolio.

As my readers know, my goal is to escape the rat race with the help of investments in the stock market. With my eyes targeting financial independence, having a passive stream of income is crucial. One way to get it is to invest in dividend-paying companies. The strategy is called income-investing and it is a reliable strategy of building up passive income, large enough to be able paying bills (and more) once the decision to retire has been made.

When it comes to income-investing ideas, how to pick a stock, and what one needs to be aware of, the pharma industry emerges quickly as a good direction to look at.

Profits for years to come

My personal portfolio contains shares of two pharmaceutical companies: AbbVie (ABBV) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). They are not THE biggest in the industry, but large enough to reward their shareholders with frequent dividends for many years now. And chances are good that this won’t change anytime soon.

Big Pharma is a term that is being used in a mostly negative manner. Overcharging customers, abusing their power, and either way, health should be free for all, shouldn’t it? Maybe. Maybe not. But what is pretty certain is that this industry has a tremendous cash-flow that is only increasing with a growing and ageing population.

People get sick. It’s how humans work. We get sick, we get better. For most of the time anyway. But the part of getting better for most of the time involves medications, treatments, surgeries, vaccines, anti-biotics, hospital stays. It’s a never-ending battle that will always require someone to develop, produce and distribute all those essential products that help us to have a long and healthy life.

They can do what no one else can

Some people may think that supporting Big Pharma can’t be the only way to get things done. Some smaller companies should be able to pull it off as well, right? Research, development, production, distribution. Well, the bad news is, that smaller companies simply can’t do all this. And even if they try to share the work process with other companies, chances are that they either fail or can’t make enough profit for a sustainable contribution.

There was a recent story about a company called Achaogen that comes to my mind. The company was working on a new type of antibiotics. The scientists and researchers were looking for a way to develop a new type of antibiotics, as the currently widely available versions are becoming increasingly less effective. They were largely successful in the beginning but failed after a very short time in operation. The business was just not profitable enough to sustain.

This case highlights the need for some for really large economies of scale, cross-incentives among products, and distribution scale that a small company simply can’t sustain. And we are talking only about antibiotics. How about those much larger and even more cost-intensive projects. Cancer, HIV, dementia. There are so many challenges in front of us. They require the right people, with the right education and research experience, the right equipment, sufficient funding, the right connections for distribution and the stamina to dive through ups and downs of the world without going bankrupt.

Bill Gates, for example, is working closely with many companies including GlaxoSmithKline through his Gates Foundation. When asked about the reason for this collaboration instead of just using his immense wealth to simply find solutions on his own, he said it very simply: These companies can do things that no one else can do.

This is a powerful statement for any investor out there. It says that, to a large part, there are not many alternatives. That’s a big moat to cross and perfect protection for any long-term investor.

The risks are limited

Unsurprisingly, AbbVie and GlaxoSmithKline are both considered to be rewarding long-term investments for income investors not only by me but by pretty much every analyst out there. The combination of the long-term focus, available resources, knowledge and power of distribution, together with a reliable and stable cash-flow give pharma companies excellent risk/reward ratios.

Some analysts point out that the big cash-cows might at some point disappear, especially when cheaper alternatives come to market. When patents run out. When the competition catches up. These concerns are legit. It will happen. But unlike some electronic toys or tools, health is a different story with plenty of areas that are still under development and which are almost impossible to copy in a simple and cost-efficient process. The electronic cycle for product improvement is only roughly 1 year and has very limited regulations in place. Health related products take 10-15 years to develop and are subjected to heavy approval processes and regulations. This will always keep the competition at pace, even if some profit margins might occasionally suffer or take a blow.

Disclosure: I own all stocks mentioned in this article.

Get independent and stop dealing with CRAP

There are many reasons to strive for financial independence. For me, some of them are company politics and the never-ending dealing with CRAP. It’s one of my favourite acronyms:

  • Criticism
  • Rejection
  • Assholes
  • Pressure

You can’t become a leader in any organization without it. It’s part of the deal. No matter what you do, once you are in charge of others, CRAP will be part of your daily experience. It’s to a large part the reason why people in higher positions get higher salaries. It’s not really about their skillset, but more so about their ability to deal with CRAP.

And some might even enjoy it for a while. The constant competition, attention and the feeling of winning whenever you come out on the top. But in the long-run it is tiring. Exhausting. And you are not always winning, you will be losing frequently. In fact, the amount of times that you got to pull yourself together, to get up after you have been beaten down and to push through things that might not match your moral or ethic standards, your expectations and believes, it is so much higher compared to the few wins that you collect along the way.

Some just accept it for what it is. But for others, this might lead to depression, frustrations, the occasional loss of faith in humanity, and burn-out. On top of all that, it is really time-consuming and you might start asking yourself, why you are doing all the effort. What is the actual purpose of your journey?

Serving others is the true purpose of any company out there

Tim Cook said it once and he is absolutely right. Every company, every product and every service is meant to be for someone, to solve some problem, challenge or requirement. Solving problems creates value and pricing follows. So whatever we do when we work, we do it to serve.

When you recognize this to be the case, you have the best chances to really understand the purpose of what you are doing. Knowing your purpose gives you passion, and aligning with it leads to dedication. Dedication leads to success. Success doesn’t necessarily mean a monetary reward, but it often comes along with it.

But serving others is a never-ending task. There will always be a problem. A challenge. An obstacle. A restraint, limitation or a sudden turn of events. And there are always other people. Foes and friends. Competitors. Supervisors. Investors. Shareholders. Politicians.

The more success you have, the more lives you will affect. Whether you want it or not, your actions will have an influence on the lives of other people. On the dreams, which you might elevate or destroy for those who work under you, to the pressure and constant rejection by the supervisors who you work for. Shareholders and investors will always keep you under pressure to deliver the best possible financial results. Sometimes forcing you to action things that might go against your conscience or against what you might consider being the right thing to do.

Cut the CRAP

And I think it’s all actually OK. It’s important. Going this path for a while can help you to understand how human minds work, about group dynamics, all the different agendas out there that people follow. Personal and business-wise. It will give you a deeper understanding of different perspectives, sometimes unexpected connections, incentives and occasional shocks on what may seem like irrational behaviour or unforeseen turn of events. Pushing towards success helps us to develop, to learn and to understand the world around us a little more.

But I don’t think you need to do this your entire life. There is a point when the whole thing becomes overwhelming. A burden. Your mind will be dragged down, your physical condition will start to suffer, your personal relations will get affected and step by step you might start seeing only the problems around you. Depression may follow and with it a steep fall from your high ground at work, and possible medical repercussions.

We call this a burn-out. It doesn’t happen overnight, but when you climb the career ladder, it will slowly creep into your work-life. Usually, when you notice it it’s already too late. So knowing all this, how can you avoid it from happening? The answers are, firstly by becoming financially independent and secondly, by choosing when to stop.

Financial independence comes first, because it’s the tool that allows you to go for the second step. When you become financially independent, you can cut the CRAP at any given time without the need to worry about any repercussions on your life. Your shelter, food and healthcare can remain protected. If you really think about it, you will realize that this is quite a lot, more than most people on the planet have today.

Find your inspiration

For me, CRAP is one of the most important reasons for working even harder to reach FIRE. This doesn’t need to be the case for everyone. Some people might enjoy regular work. Having their 7 to 5, the daily soap operas at the office, the feeling of belonging somewhere. Those may find their inspiration for FIRE somewhere else. But for me, after independence and freedom, CRAP is the next immediate reason on my list of motivations to get out of the rat race.

How to pick a stock

Among the shares that I hold in my portfolio, Apple (AAPL) is currently among my largest positions. I was lucky buying it when the price was at 148 EUR per share on the XETRA exchange. Today the price is pending at around 200 EUR. An increase of over 30%.

The case for buying Apple was a pretty easy one. I understand what the company is doing. I believe that the company offers tremendous value with its quality products, and due to its image of a luxury brand, it’s getting away with charging its customers premium prices. It is also steadily expanding its products, services and deepening its eco-system, binding its customers to it. A smart approach and one that is unlikely to change any soon.

From a financial point of view, Apple has not only uniquely high-profit margins within the industry. It is also valued at a very moderate level in comparison with its peers. Apple has a tremendous amount of cash and invests constantly in research and development to stay ahead of its peers.

To the tech-savvy readers here, let me explain that staying ahead doesn’t mean to have the technically most advanced system or technology. Staying ahead means to have a great product, offering a technology that is up-to-date and understood by its customers, combined with an appealing design and seamless user-interface. This is called a customer-focused approach, and nobody in the industry does it better than Apple.

Understanding “The Moat”

This is the reason why there is no real competition out there. People might argue about whether iOS or Android is a better system. People might argue whether the hardware used by Apple is really ground-breaking or not. But nobody can argue the fact that Apple is the only real luxury brand in the technology market, with a dedicated and customer-centric focus.

The resulting difference to its competitors is stunning. While Apple has actually only a very small share of the global smartphone market, it collects 90% of the global mobile phone profits. Also, its laptops and workstations profit significantly higher than any Samsung, Huawei or Dell out there. Why would people pay so much more for these products than for others?

To make things more interesting, Apples focus on its software is now coming into the spotlight stronger than ever, which promise even higher profit margins.

A huge part of Apple’s success came from its smooth and seamless iOS system. Most iPhones usually had lower tech-specs compared to most other phones out there, but the iOS system was perfectly designed to the hardware. It allowed it to function more intuitive, more smooth and much more user-friendly.

The concept is actually copied from video game consoles. There was always this on-going debate, whether one should buy a power computer for gaming, or just a Playstation. The Playstation had usually a solid but not ground-breaking technology and always seemed to underperform in any pure benchmark comparison. And yet, more than often a Playstation could outperform any PC in gameplay and remain relevant in the market for significantly longer. The user-friendly approach and seamless hardware & software integration were key to success. Warren Buffett likes to call this kind of differentiating attribute a “moat”.

The Moat ensures long-term profits

So again, whatever your personal feeling on Apples vs. the rest is, the fact is that due to its solid moat, Apple can make more money than its competitors. Not a little more, but significantly more, for all the reasons above. It protects the company effectively in good and bad times, and it ensures the company remains relevant for a long time to go.

Long-term profits are the only thing that matter for stock-price appreciation, for dividend-growth and for the company to stay at the top. This is also why Warren Buffett is currently one of the largest shareholders of Apple. This is why I have bought shares of Apple. And looking for this kind of attributes in a company is a proven strategy on how to pick a stock.

Disclosure: I own shares of Apple.

Depending on work is not a smart long-term plan

I don’t remember whether my parents were asking me about my aspirations when I was young. I also don’t remember hearing them talking to neighbours, friends or family about what I am going to do when I grow up. They never really tried to push any particular profession on me. Maybe because they wanted me to discover the world on my own. Or maybe because as a kid I was not easy to talk to.

We went to school, learned all the basics that were considered important to find our passions, to figure out our talents, sharpen some skills, and to give us a hint of a direction towards some of the opportunities that were out there for us.

What nobody talked about were the things that would stand in our way. The things that would hinder us to develop, hinder us to grow, hinder us to follow our passions and hinder us to truly try to discover our full potential.

To some part, I understand. I wouldn’t believe anyone who would tell me that there was a very high probability to end up doing a job that I might not really care about, for people I might never get to know, to receive some money that will be just enough to cover my living expenses. Mundane tasks day in and out, without passion and without any true commitment, just to get through the day.

This is what we call the rat race and a reality for so many people in the world.

Everything has a price-tag

The grown-ups give us a lot of hope when we are young. They tell us that we can be anything we want. Do whatever we want. And achieve whatever is possible. In reality, it’s all not that simple.

Once we move out from home and leave the protective roof of our parents home and their care, reality quickly kicks in. We need money. Money to pay the rent, groceries, utilities, to go out, to travel. Everything in this world has a price tag on.

So whether you want it or not, you have to start to work. And the moment you get your first job, you enter the rat race. We all got to make a living and yes, living has a price to it. Shelter, food and health. These are the basics and to secure them one needs money.

The bad news is that as long as our financial system exists in its current form, these price-tags will never go away. They just grow larger. With inflation always present, you will experience that over your lifetime prices for everything around you double and triple.

It always starts with trading time for money

I started when I was 14 years old. My parents couldn’t pay me too much pocket money and sometimes cash would be short even for the simplest basics like new shoes or a jacket. So I just found a job to be able to afford what I wanted and needed. I started filling up shelves in a grocery store.

From there on, I would sacrifice every Saturday for it. 6-8 hours every Saturday morning, putting milk cartons into the shelves, sorting frozen pizzas, yoghurts, re-fill soda bottles and occasionally guiding some customers through the store. My salary was something around 6 EUR per hour if I remember correctly. I would earn 36-48 Euros for each Saturday, being paid-out in cash by the end of each week. A huge improvement to the 5-10 EUR that I would get from my parents per week.

This is how I learned to trade time for money. When I needed money, I went to work. When Saturdays earnings were not enough, I would free up an afternoon during the week and work one more day after school. Suddenly I could afford to buy new shoes, to get rid of my glasses and buy contact lenses. I had money to spend when hanging out with my friends. It seemed to be a great concept.

What I obviously didn’t think about at that time was that at some point in my life I would have to pay the rent on my own. Utilities, food, to have my own medical insurance. I didn’t think about how many hours I would need to spend in that grocery store to be able to afford all of it.

Depending on money is killing your opportunities to grow

When you grow up, before you even know it, you start trading most of your time for money. Regular work contracts in Europe have something around 35 working hours per week on them. In Asia, it’s around 48. And more than often, this one job is just enough to secure the previously mentioned basics: Shelter, food and health.

Those who want to be able to get a little more out of life start taking part-time jobs, freelance online and adding up hours of work. This is what they know, what they learned. To trade time for money. But as more and more of their time is being traded out for cash, their opportunities in other areas shrink with every traded minute. Learning new skills, discovering new passions, spending time with their loved ones. The time to do those things disappears with every traded hour. Minute by minute.

How long can you work

And the big question is, how long can you actually do this? What will happen when you get old? Will your social security be enough to live on? What if you get sick? Handicapped? When your mental ability goes down?

And how about all those things you always wanted to do in life? Going for a trip around the world, feel some wanderlust in the Swiss Alps, climbing in the Himalayas, snorkelling in Thailand, drinking Mojitos in Cuba or visiting the Empire State Building? Do you think that you will be able to pursue your dreams once you left the workforce?

We are not smart enough to consider all those things when we are young. I wasn’t smart enough then to think about the next logical step when I started to work in the grocery store. But as we get older and develop a deeper sense of logic, we certainly should be smart enough to put it into consideration, shouldn’t we?

Working is not bad – depending on work is

There is of course another way. A way to develop passive income and to stop being dependent on any job. This does not mean to stop working. Absolutely not. I can’t imagine a life without work. I want to do something. I want to work.

But I don’t want to worry about money.
I don’t want to have to work for money.
I don’t want to depend on work for money.

Those whose minds are trapped in the system won’t understand this idea. How could they? They never learned anything else. But, what if we could work for our passions, our beliefs, our aspirations and our dreams? Wouldn’t it just be something else entirely?

FIRE is all about that. About freeing up your time, your mind and your passions. Because once you reached financial independence, you can focus on things that will truly matter to you. Isn’t this a goal worth striving for?

Dividends are everyones friends

I am a strong promoter of companies that benefit shareholders by distributing dividends. While many companies refuse to do so in order to keep the cash for future investments, I believe that since a shareholder carries risk in regards to the companies success, he or she should also reap a reward from his investment and participate in the companies profits.

There is obviously no guarantee for any company to generate profits for a lifetime, but there are companies that have paid dividends and rewarded their shareholders in a very reliable manner.

Dividend Kings and Dividend Aristocrats

The terms Dividend Kings and Dividend Aristocrats are being associated with companies that have not only distributed dividends for 50 or 25 years respectively without a single interruption. They also have never lowered the dividend payout but increased it every single year.

For investors who are looking for a regular income to receive out of their investments, these are the stocks that might be the most attractive ones to look at, as they earned a status that promises a relatively secure financial future. A promise of paying out dividends for as long as one stays invested.

Compounding dividends

This is not only tempting for retirement investors who are looking to secure their nest egg while continue generating a steady cash-flow. It is even more interesting to young investors who possess two important traits: Time and patience. The magic words that come into play here are “compounding dividends”.

Stocks that generate regularly increasing income do not only secure a return on your investment. But given enough time, they might easily outgrow it by ridiculous amounts. How is this possible?

For these companies, revenue and profit growth lead to dividend increases. If a company can grow its dividend by 10% year on year, it will almost double it’s dividend payouts within 6 years.

So for example, if you buy now shares of AT&T (the biggest telecom provider in the US) which yield 5.8% at the time of writing this article, and AT&T would increase its dividend by 10% year on year, then over the next 6 years your return on investment would grow year on year and reach a return of over 11% by 2025. This would look like this:

2019 = 5.80 %
2020 = 6.38 %
2021 = 7.02 %
2022 = 7.72 %
2023 = 8.49 %
2024 = 9.34 %
2025 = 10.27 %
2026 = 11.30 %

The power of time and patience

So just imagine how this will play out if you keep holding the stock for another 30 years. At some point, your yield on investment might actually outgrow your initial investment. Every. Single. Year. Ridiculous? Crazy? Impossible? Not at all. Let me bring up the greatest investor of all times: Mr Warren Buffet.

One of the largest investments in his lifetime was to put money into Coca Cola. Not only did the value of the company shares appreciate over his lifetime but so did the dividends. From what I was reading, his annual dividends on Coca Cola offer a yield on cost of anything between 40-55% – depending on which source you follow.

Just think of it: You put 100.000$ in a company and given enough time it will return to you between 40.000-55.000$ – every single year. And not only that, but it keeps growing and you don’t need to lift a finger.

The astonishing thing is that Coca Cola and AT&T are not the only examples out there. As of the time of writing, the 2019 list of Dividends Kings has these companies on it:

  • Amer. States Water(AWR)
  • Dover (DOV)
  • Northwest Nat. (NWN)
  • Emerson Electric (EMR)
  • Genuine Parts (GPC)
  • Procter & Gamble (PG)
  • Parker Hannifin (PH)
  • 3M (MMM)
  • Cincinnati Fin. (CINF)
  • Johnson &Johnson (JNJ)
  • Coca-Cola (KO)
  • Lancaster Colony (LANC)
  • Lowe’s (LOW)
  • Colgate-Palmolive (CL)
  • Nordson (NDSN)
  • F & M Bank (FMCB)
  • Tootsie Roll Industries (TR)
  • Hormel Foods (HRL)
  • ABM Industries (ABM)
  • California Water Services (CWT)
  • Federal Realty Inv. Trust (FRT)
  • Stepan (SCL)
  • SJW Group (SJW)
  • Stanley Black & Decker (SWK)
  • Target (TGT)
  • Commerce Bancshares (CHSH)

Personally, I haven’t bought a single Dividend King stock yet. I have two current Dividend Aristocrats in my portfolio, namely AT&T (T) and AbbVie (ABBV). And I am purchasing stocks that I expect to become a Dividend Aristocrat at some point in the future. Apple (AAPL) is such a company as is Starbucks (SBUX) which I also both owe.

Over the next two years, I am planning to purchase several of the official Dividend Aristocrats and to add them to my portfolio. I am currently looking at 3M, Coca Cola,  and Target and will probably purchase some shares within this or during the first quarter of the next year.

I am not entirely focused on dividends only, but having a good mix of shares that offer great potential for growth as well as companies that will secure me a steady cash-flow and grow it year on year is a pretty great combination. Dividends can be an investor’s best friend as they create exactly what every FIRE aspirant is looking for: A steadily growing passive income.

Disclosure: I own shares of AT&T, AbbVie, Apple and Starbucks.