To Robert Shearer, skipper of the $23 billion BlackRock Equity Dividend fund, dividends are a no-brainer. The presence of dividends says a lot about a company's financial stewardship, Shearer says. It's simple: no cash, no dividends. "The discipline that paying a dividend instills in company management makes them better allocators of capital," he says. Otherwise, they might be swayed by financial folly, he argues.

It wasn't long ago that investors turned up their noses at dividends. In the go-go years of the late 1990s or mid-2000s, dividends were for fuddy-duddies. Companies increased shareholder value through growth, not returning cash.

Then, the world changed. The Bush-era tax cuts of 2003 gave more favorable tax treatment to dividends - just 15% versus the top rate of 35%. Also, interest rates continued to plummet, nudging investors to look beyond bonds for yield. Now tech giants are in the mix, too. Microsoft started the trend in 2003 and Oracle, Cisco, Intel and now Apple have joined in.

Investors are clamoring for dividends in the quest for yield. With the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats index approaching an all-time high, some wonder if there's a bubble for dividend stocks.



Shearer takes a more measured approach to dividend-paying stocks than investors do. That shows in the fund's long-term results. Over the three-year period that ended Aug. 1, the fund returned 13.2%, compared with 11.3% for the average peer in the large-value category where BlackRock Equity Dividend resides, according to Morningstar. That showing placed the offering in the top 19% of similar funds. Over the past five years, the fund posted a 2.1% gain, landing in the category's top 9%.

It's not enough for a stock to pay a dividend, though each of the 109 holdings does. Shearer wants companies whose dividends are both sustainable and growing, believing that that's one way investors can keep ahead of inflation. Shearer estimates the 10-year growth rate of the dividends in the portfolio is 11.5%, compared with 6.5% for the S&P 500 and 4.5% for the Russell 1000 Value, the fund's benchmark.

Shearer points to one long-term holding, IBM. In the late 1990s, its quarterly yield was just 12 cents a share. Since then, the tech blue chip has consistently raised its dividend. After a 13% increase in April, IBM now pays 85 cents a share. The stock is up 9.7% in the 12 months ending Aug. 1.

A study by C. Thomas Howard, a finance professor at the University of Denver shows that for every percentage point a company raises its dividend, its annual return rises by 0.22 percentage points if it's a large-cap, 0.25 for mid-caps and 0.46 for small-caps. Howard found that dividend growers outperformed dividend cutters by 10 percentage points a year from 1973 to 2010. They also trounced those stocks that didn't raise their dividends and non-payers, as well.



"To get dividend growth, you need to have earnings growth as well," he says. "We do a lot of work to find sectors that come into supply-demand imbalance."

Consider BHP Billiton, the Australian diversified miner active in aluminum, copper and coal. The firm's recent results have been off due to a slowdown in emerging markets and the European debt crisis. However, once Europe's fiscal situation is resolved and growth resumes in the U.S., BHP Billiton can stand to benefit, Shearer says. "There are limits to how much capacity there is for raw materials," he says.

BHP Billiton, which yields 3.3%, meanwhile, is down 24.7% in the 12 months ended Aug. 1.

In finding companies for the fund, Shearer applies a value investor's attention to balance sheet strength. Value qualities and dividends go hand in hand. To find companies for the portfolio, Shearer starts by looking at large-cap names that are trading at a discount to their five-year price-to-earnings ratio or at a discount to their peers. In addition, Shearer looks for companies whose debt equals less than 50% of their book capitalization. And the company should be a low-cost provider.

"These companies tend to hold up better when we do get into rough patches," he says.

Two names in the industrials sector fit the bill: Caterpillar as well as the aforementioned BHP Billiton. Both companies play to Shearer's focus on firms selling into the emerging markets, amd BHP Billiton keeps its costs among the lowest in the mining industry, Shearer explains.

Caterpillar has a yield of 2.3% and is down 16% over the last year. "They've seen their backlog grow over the last year," he says. "We think these companies are really going to benefit as we get more emerging markets people moving into the middle class."

Despite the emphasis on income, the dividend yield of Equity Income is below that of its peers. That's by design, Shearer says. Quality companies don't always have the highest dividends. Shearer divides the dividend universe into deciles, depending on how much the stocks pay out. He eschews the highest payers right off and focuses his efforts on the third and second deciles. "They have a better trade off between capital appreciation and dividend payout," he says.

The other reason is that Shearer's turnover rate is an unusually low 5%. He doesn't ditch lower dividends in favor of bigger ones frequently. As long as a firm continues to execute on its business strategy, he will continue to own it. "Companies' investment time horizons are multiyear in nature, so we'll invest on their time horizons."

It might be easy to populate the fund largely with financial service names because they tend to be big dividend payers. However, Shearer doesn't care for the sector given the mess many large banks find themselves in today. His 15.5% stake in the sector is well below the S&P 500's helping of 21%.

More government regulation is likely and that will limit profits. Large banks may split up. Shearer has held this view for a while. The fund was light on the sector going into the financial crisis and it helped the fund lose less than its rivals. In 2008, Equity Income posted a 32.8% loss compared with the S&P 500's 37% drop.

"We were right for the wrong reason," Shearer acknowledges. "We were concerned about the potential impact of rising interest rates."



Shearer worried that banks' lending activity would suffer when their cost of capital rose with higher rates. Of course, rates fell further still. But financial services imploded. Many then went on to cut their dividends in 2009 as they were forced to boost their capital requirements. That year, lead by financials, there were a record 804 dividend cuts, according to S&P. The environment certainly has improved, but Shearer has continued to maintain his underweight in the sector.

Instead, he likes Canadian banks such as Bank of Nova Scotia and National Bank of Canada. For the 12-month period ended Aug. 2, Bank of Nova Scotia was down 5.2% and has a 4.1% dividend yield. National Bank of Canada is off by 1.2% over that period and yields 4%.

But Shearer is still bullish. "It's a much more concentrated industry in Canada with stricter lending standards," he says.



Ilana Polyak, a Financial Planning contributing writer in New York, has also written for The New York Times, Money and Kiplinger's.



Robert Shearer, BlackRock Equity Dividend Fund


Credentials: M.B.A, University of Wisconsin

Experience: Portfolio manager, BlackRock Equity Dividend (2006-present); first VP, Merrill Lynch Investment Managers (1998-2000); VP, David L. Babson & Co. (1996-1997)

Ticker: MDDVX

Inception of fund: October 1994

Style: Large value

AUM:$23 billion

Three-year performance as of Aug. 13, 2012: 13.2%

Five-year performance as of Aug. 13, 2012: 2.1%

Expense ratio: 1.02%

Front load: 5.25%

Minimum investment: $1,000

Alpha:2.93% vs. S&P 500