Aswath Damodaran

How To Invest A Lump Sum

Imagine that you are able to receive a lump sum today, due to an event such as a sale of a business, cashing out of a pension, inheritance or winning the lottery. After you rejoice a little, you start asking yourself what to do with the money. I keep asking myself the same question quite frequently, and think my way through this “problem”.

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Aswath Damodaran

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If I received a lump-sum payment today, I would approach it differently, depending on the level of experience I have, the time I am willing to commit to investing per week, and the level and effort of continuing investing education I am willing to commit myself to. For sake of comparison, lets imagine that I am about to receive $1 million tomorrow.

The easiest option is to build a portfolio consisting entirely of mutual funds, covering indices such as S&P 500, US Total Market Index or a World Total Market Index. This would be in a situation where I didn’t know much about investing, didn’t have the time nor inclination to spend too much time on it, or decided it would have been too big of a hassle for me to pick stocks individually. I would basically put the money in a ladder of Certificates of Deposit first, and have an equal amount of those CD’s expire every month for 24 – 36 months. That way, I am mentally removing the pressure of having to invest all money at once, and I am also removing the opportunity to invest most of the money in my cousin’s business idea of a social network for cats (Catbook anyone?). As an equal amount of money is available each month, I will have it invested in the mix of stock funds. The purpose of dollar cost averaging is to avoid putting all the money at once, in order to avoid the risk of putting the money at the highest prices. By investing an equal amount each month, I am increasing chances that I will get decent prices for stocks I buy, and avoid overpaying. I will also miss out if prices keep going straight up for those 24 – 36 months, but that would be a risk worth taking, since it would also mean I would not put all money right before a major correction. The conventional way of this portfolio is to sell a portion each year to cover expenses. This could work in most situations, unless of course the stock market is down right when you start withdrawing or if the stock market is flat for the majority of time.

The other option I would take if I were willing to put the time and effort into it would be to invest the money in dividend paying stocks directly. I would still start with a CD ladder however, and put equal amounts into attractively valued dividend paying stocks every month for 24- 36 months. I would start by screening the list of dividend champions and dividend achievers every month, identify companies for further research, and put an equal amount of funds into the ten most promising ideas every single month. I would rinse and repeat every single month for 24 – 36 months. Over time, I should be able to gain some sort of understanding behind a large portion of those dividend champions, through regular reading and research about these companies. As the knowledge of each company is accumulated, it would be much easier to act. This process could take a lot of time at first, since it would require spending time researching whether the companies that met a basic entry screen are worth my money. After that however, additional follow-ups on each company should not take that much time each year on average. My goal would be to have a portfolio consisting of at least 40 different dividend paying stocks, representative of as many sectors as possible. That doesn’t mean owning utilities just so you own utilities. It means buying into companies selling at attractive valuation, but also making sure that I do not concentrate too much in a particular sector such as financials for example.

I would also build a portfolio around the three different types of dividend growth companies I have previously identified. The biggest mistake to avoid is focusing only on current dividend yield, without doing much additional work about its sustainability, potential for growth, understanding of the business etc.

Living off dividend income is pretty easy, once a portfolio is set up. When I receive dividend checks directly deposited in my brokerage account, this is cold hard cash I can do whatever I want with. I do not have to stress over whether we are about to enter a bear market, and I would run out of money simply because prices are depressed. I would receive cash dividends, which will get increased above the rate of inflation over time. I would likely accumulate all dividends for a three month period, then spend it equally over the next three monhts. If there is anything left over, I would reinvest it into more dividend paying stocks.

I have chosen of course to focus on selecting individual dividend paying stocks. It is cheaper in the long run to build a portfolio of dividend paying stocks, and rarely sell them. I only sell when dividend is cut or eliminated or when stocks are acquired for cash. I also try to outguess valuations from time to time, but my results have proven that I should not do that. In majority of situations, I am better off just sitting out there, doing nothing. This is the most difficult thing to do in investing.

My portfolio is generating dividends every month, quarter and year. The holdings I own tend to increase those dividends over time, maintaining purchasing power of income, and making my shares more valuable. While stock prices fluctuate from year to year, dividend income is always positive, it is more stable, and thus it is better tool to use when designing a portfolio to live off of. Plus, even the cheapest mutual funds that cost say 0.10% per year are more expensive on a portfolio worth $1 million, since they result in $1000 in annual costs. With brokers such as Interactive Brokers, I would have to make 1000 investments at $1/trade in order to reach the same costs per year. In addition, I would be able to hold on to most stocks and only buy shares in companies which I find properly valued, and possessing the characteristics I am focusing on. I could also avoid selling shares and incurring taxable expenses merely because an index committee decides to remove companies from their lists.

I like the fact that the companies I own provide me with fresh cash in a regular, predictable patterns. This is similar to what my experience is when working – receiving a paycheck at an equal intervals of time. With dividend stocks, I do the work upfront in selection at proper valuation, and then receive the cash for years if not decades to come.

In summary, it makes sense to spread out the investment of a lump sum received in order to reduce investment risks, and reduce the impact of mistakes. The investor who manages a considerable amount of funds should have the goal of preserving wealth first, so that it can last for decades. This will be achieved by spreading purchases over time, diversifying the portfolio in at least 40 individual securities from a variety of sectors, continuing their quest for investment knowledge and requiring quality and attractive prices in the types of investments they purchase.

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