In just a moment, I'm going to show you a chart every investor needs to see.
Every analyst already knows about it. Most experienced investors know it too. But it seems like no one is willing to admit exactly what it means.
Frankly, I don't think most investors are prepared for what I'm about to tell you. I want to make sure you aren't one of them.
I think dividends will account for ALL of the market's return for the next decade.
Sound impossible? Not only is it possible, but it's already happened before... and it's happening right now.
Since 1931, dividends have accounted for 40% of the market's total return, according to bond-king PIMCO. This means for every $100 the stock market returns, $40 was paid in dividends. (Given that, it's amazing how many investors still ignore dividends.)
And since that time, two entire decades -- the 1930s and the 2000s -- have seen ALL of their returns come from dividends.
Just look at the market's recent history. The S&P 500 has lost 4% in capital gains during the past five years. But when you add in the dividends paid during that time, investors actually gained 7%.
In other words, we're already in the middle of another "dividend decade" and yet you barely hear a word about it.
Let me show you why I'm convinced we'll be stuck in this pattern for years to come. It all starts with that chart I mentioned earlier...
The past three decades have been the absolute best time in history to invest -- and that's despite the 1987 crash, the popping tech bubble in 2000, the housing crash, the United States' credit downgrade and dozens of other negative events. Just $10,000 invested in the S&P in 1982 would be worth $259,000 today.
But all those gains come with a dirty little secret... debt.
Debt is like jet fuel for economic growth. And never in the history of mankind has a group of people taken on more debt than Americans have in the past three decades.
In the mid-1980s, America's household debt (just household debt, not government debt) stood at a little more than $2 trillion. Today, it's $12 trillion -- six times as much.
That debt binge has been the most important factor in the unprecedented returns in the stock market for nearly three decades. Debt has fueled purchases of everything from homes to cars to TV sets to iPads. It's helped millions of families live beyond their means... to the benefit of thousands of companies.
The chart below shows the direct relationship between soaring household debt and the rise of the stock market:
This chart also shows why the United States can't escape the recent downturn, despite trillions of dollars in stimulus and record-low interest rates.
Consumer spending is 70% of the U.S. economy. Debt has fueled increased spending for decades. Now we've reached a point where the average American can't easily take on any more debt. In fact, since the Great Recession, the trend among U.S. households has been toward reducing debt. The bill is coming due on the largest segment of the U.S. economy.
Keep in mind that everything I've just told you has nothing to do with government debt. The government has added trillions in debt to bail out banks and carmakers, fund stimulus projects and backstop government enterprises such as Fannie Mae. (It's largely responsible for the market's surge in the past few years, despite falling household debt.)
Government debt has risen from 50% of gross domestic product (GDP) 30 ago to 100% today.
But just like the rise in consumer debt, government debt can't rise forever either.
On top of all of this, the U.S. economy faces the law of large numbers. The United States is a large, extremely developed market. Our GDP sits at $16 trillion annually. In 1982, GDP was $3.2 trillion (in today's dollars). During the "debt boom" of the past 30 years, GDP increased 400%.
Say we saw the same 400% growth for the next 30 years. This means in three decades, the U.S. GDP would be about $80 trillion -- more than the entire planet's GDP today. It doesn't take an economist to understand that's highly unlikely, especially given that we can't continue tapping into debt to fuel that growth.
We're already seeing signs of a slowdown. From 1983 through 2000 -- a period of 18 years -- U.S. annual GDP grew at 4% or better nine times.
Fast forward to today, and the U.S. economy hasn't grown at a rate of 4% or better for 12 straight years. At its current size, squeezing out growth of more than a few percent from our giant economy is a monumental task.
So does all this mean the stock market will crash and you're better off stuffing your money under a mattress?
My point is this: For decades, the U.S. economy has been the economic engine of the entire world. Never in history has so much wealth been created. During that time, the stock market has soared, but dividends have still made up an enormous percentage of total returns.
Now we are almost sure to see slower growth for years... or even decades to come. In this type of environment, it's obvious that dividends will account for an even larger share of the market's returns.
Action to Take --> Again, during the past 80 years, dividends have accounted for 40% of the stock market's returns. But going forward, I predict they'll account for 100% -- literally ALL -- of the market's returns. That's exactly what we've seen for the past decade, and I expect that trend to continue throughout the next decade.
In this new environment, there is still an enormous opportunity to make money. You just have to position your portfolio to take advantage of this new reality.
[Note: As I mentioned earlier, the "dividend decade" isn't just a myth... It's already becoming a reality. In my recent report, "The Top Ten Stocks  For 2013," I've identified 10 stocks that are already benefiting from this new trend and that could continue to do so if my prediction proves to be true. One of these stocks has returned 137% in three years -- more than triple the S&P's 39% gain. Another has raised its dividend 463% since 2004... and another has more than $9.21 per share in cash (49% of its share price). To learn more about these top picks for the coming year -- and possibly the decade -- visit this link .]
-- Paul Tracy