Go-Ahead Group: A high-yield defensive stock

I know that some of my best investment returns have come about not from some amazing insight into what the company was going to do or what the economy was going to do.  Insteadthey’ve come from combining solid and stable companies with an attractive starting valuation and a healthy dose of patience.

I think the best way to invest is to look for companies where their earnings power and underlying value are following a relatively stable upward trend.  All you have to do then, more or less, is buy them when they’re cheap and sell them when they’re dear (if only it were that simple).

Enter Go-Ahead Group

Go-Ahead is one of the largest public transport groups in the UK.  They’re split fairly evenly between buses and trains, with over a million passengers a day travelling on their rail services and almost two million on the buses.

As a public transport company, they’re fairly well insulated from economic ups and downs, as people have to get to work and travel around no matter what.

Step 1 – Find a company with a stable intrinsic value

You can see Go-Ahead’s results over the last decade below.


Even though Go-Ahead is a defensive company, its earnings have still been affected by this long recession.  However, even though earnings show a boom and bust peak between 2006 and 2008, the general picture is one of relative stability with a long-term upward trend.

Sales are up, the dividend has been maintained, and even in the depths of a recession, earnings are above where they were ten years ago.  I think the future for Go-Ahead is likely to be much the same – stability, profit, dividends, and some mild growth.

What does that have to do with intrinsic value?  Although intrinsic value isn’t something which we can actually calculate, it is based on sales, profits, cash flows and dividends.  If these things are broadly stable, predictable and dependable, then so is the company’s intrinsic value.  This means that it will be easier to work out when the share price is high or low in relation to that intrinsic value.

Step 2: Buy when the price is low relative to value

Buying low means buying low relative to the intrinsic value.  Since we cannot know the intrinsic value, we have to use proxies like sales, earnings and dividends.  This means buying shares when the earnings and dividend yields are high.

In Go-Ahead’s case, the dividend yield today is around 6%, largely unchanged from when I first bought into this company in February 2012.

While 6% is a long way from being the highest yield in the market, it is well above average, especially for a dividend which has a very good chance of being maintained and increased in the longer term.

Although the high yield is far from the only reason I bought this company, the dividend is often one of the most reliable indicators of a low price, and a high yield is one of my core requirements.

Step 3: Be patient

If you’re buying shares and have even the slightest notion that you are going to sell within the next year, then you are not an investor – you are a trader.

The same thing applies if you are more concerned about the share price than you are about the underlying fundamentals of the business.  Investing is about investing in businesses, not pieces of paper or share prices that bounce around on a screen all day long.

Personally, I like to look at equity investments as an extension of cash and bonds.  This is a way of viewing equities as something which Warren Buffett called the equity bond.

Since we cannot know what the share price of any company will be tomorrow, next week or next year, it makes sense to look at equities as long-term investments.

In my case, I like to imagine that I am buying an ‘equity bond’ with a 5-year term.  So when I buy shares, I think about whether I’d be happy to buy them if I had to own them for a fixed term of 5 years.

This means that I start thinking about whether the company will be around in 5 years.  Whether it will be bigger or smaller in 5 years, and what the dividend will be in 5 years.  Each of these questions has a massive influence on the sort of companies I’ll invest in.

It means that I look for companies that are virtually certain to still be around in 5 years, are very likely to be bigger, and are very likely to have paid a reliable and growing dividend throughout.

Of course, neither I nor anybody else knows how the future will pan out, which is why I like strong and stable companies.  Even though I do not know what the future looks like, at least I’m less likely to be wildly wrong with a company like Go-Ahead.

One more useful feature of imagining a 5-year fixed holding period is that I don’t worry too much about what’s happening today, either with the company or the economy.  I know that today is just one tiny slice of the amount of time that I’m going to be holding my investments, and therefore should only make up a tiny slice of the importance.

So Go-Ahead fits my criteria for a strong, stable company that is very likely to grow over time.  I bought it at an attractive valuation, and I intend to sell it as and when the valuation is no longer attractive.  The timing of this is entirely in the hands of Mr. Market, but if it takes five years or more, then that’s fine by me.  In the meantime, I will be patiently collecting my dividends.

Author: John Kingham

I cover both the theory and practice of investing in high-quality UK dividend stocks for long-term income and growth.

11 thoughts on “Go-Ahead Group: A high-yield defensive stock”

  1. John,
    GOG looks good. Turnover up 14% in July. PE 10! Goes XD 31.10.2012.
    Seems to pay out through thick and thin. Hedges the fuel cost (41p)
    Thank you for all the research.

    1. Hi Michael. Yes it’s been a little tight with the dividend in recent years but I expect as we move out of recession (eventually) that will change and it will start to go up in line with inflation, and perhaps a bit more.

      Re. the research, you’re welcome,


  2. John,
    I’ve just read your paper on creating your own Bear Market. I shan’t leave anymore comments in future!!!!!

  3. Good article. I do like your comment on five years length for companies. This reminds me of Warren Buffett’s quote. “I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years.”

    1. Hi JSP, I think Buffett’s quote is probably where I got the original idea from. It’s great because it focuses you on the business, not the stock market.

  4. Hi there,

    This maybe doesn’t consider the likelihood of GOG losing their rail franchises? I’d say that was quite likely and thus they could be a smaller company in five years?

    1. Hi Richard. I didn’t mention franchise risk because it’s part and parcel of how these businesses work, as we’re all seeing now with First Group and Virgin Trains. I’d class it as a ‘known unknown’, i.e. something we know is a risk, but can’t quantify in any meaningful way (or at least I can’t see how it could be quantified).

      The flip-side is that new franchises represent substantial opportunities for growth.

      Rail makes up about a third of profits, split not quite evenly between three franchises. I think if they lost their biggest franchise it would hit profits by about 15%, which isn’t the end of the world. Alternatively, if they gained a franchise it might boost profits by a similar amount.

      So your basic point is a good one – losing a franchise is a risk, but not a huge one in my opinion. In the end only time will tell, but I’m quite happy to hold Go-Ahead in my portfolio for the long-term.

  5. John

    My way of dealing with utilities is the Dimensional way. Their academical research told them that utility companies, even if they look cheap on share price/book value ratio, don’t show a ‘value premia’. That mainly because their prices are controlled by governamental agencies.

    It looks that even Neil Woodford has understood this message and got rid of the majority of utility shares he used to hold and helped him undeperform in the last few years.

    1. Hi Eugen. Do you mean Dimensional Fund Advisors? If so then I do like their ’12 steps for active investors’ book, but I don’t agree with the basic idea of market efficiency and I don’t even like the idea of ‘value premia’. I just invest where the risk/return profile looks good and sell where it doesn’t. If that leads me into a utility company then so be it.

      1. I do not agree with them on market efficiency and I believe the market is behavioural. But Dimensional are not passive investment managers, they believe they can capture the ‘value’ and ‘small cap’ premia from the market.

        Some of their research can be criticized, some is actualy quite good. I have dound their research regarding ‘utilities’ very interesting. What they said is that although utilities show ‘value’ caracteristics it doesn’t show a ‘value’ premia,

        Obviously they looked at ‘utilities’ as a sector, you may dind one or two companies showing ‘value’ premia. Up to you.

        Myself I never invested in utilities and that includes telecoms as well. There was one exemption – Telecom Plus but I have sold it 6 weeks ago as I will move houses.

        In the deep ‘value’ I have only the italian Geox Spa as all the kids at the private pre-prep school where my son goes likes their shoes. So far I am up 25% but if it doesn’t double in the next 24 months I will sell it. I bought this at book value (8.5 times less than the highest trade in 2007) as I believed the product is wonderful and Nike may snap the business but no interest so far.

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