Historically low bond yields have helped usher in a golden era for dividend stocks, with more and more different types of companies now returning a cut of their profits to shareholders. But the changing landscape of dividend payers — and frothy valuations on these popular stocks — means you have to rethink how to get income from equities.
To help make sense of this new world order, Money gathered several investment experts at the MoneyShow conference in San Francisco in late August to discuss smart ways to bring your dividend portfolio into the 21st century.
The pros — Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar; Mark Freeman, chief investment officer at Westwood Holdings Group; Ablin; and Gannatti — came up with new rules to help you balance the need for income with a desire to dampen risk as you approach retirement.
They also recommended investors change the way they think of dividend-paying stocks.
Lower your expectations, not quality
Dividend stocks have long been considered a twofer: Not only do they provide steady income, but these shares also tend to outperform on a total return basis. Since 1972, dividend growers have returned 9.7% annually, vs. just 2.2% for nonpayers.
But given current valuation concerns, you shouldn't expect dividend payers to do that well in the coming years. U.S. blue-chip stocks in general are expected to return only 1.1% a year, after inflation, for the next decade owing to their frothiness, according to Research Affiliates. And dividend-paying shares are trading at a premium to the broad market.
This means you have to reset your expectations for income-producing equities and reframe how you use them in your portfolio. It's like with bonds, "where you have to forget capital appreciation and just focus on the coupon," says Benz.
Ablin says this is an attitude that can apply to dividend investors who don't need to tap their principal in the near future to meet spending needs. "If you're looking for steady income and you're invested in quality companies with a long record of maintaining and growing their dividends, and if you're comfortable with the yield you're getting, then focus on the yield and don't worry about the stock price," he says.
Take Chevron, which lost about 30% of its market value as oil prices were halved from the spring of 2015 to late January. Ablin notes Chevron's management "kept reassuring investors there was nothing that would stand in the way of them paying the dividend." This year oil prices and Chevron's stock have rebounded, and the company has kept boosting its payments.
Of course, even if you can stomach the short-term ups and downs of your dividend-paying shares, not all companies are committed to maintaining and growing dividends as Chevron was, especially in times of crisis. Plus, not all businesses will have the financial strength to keep paying shareholders if sales and profits plummet in the next economic downturn.
So if you are investing in dividend payers solely for the income, it's imperative to create a portfolio of high-quality companies with strong balance sheets, stable earnings potential, and low debt, Ablin says. These are "companies like Chevron, Emerson Electric, and Whirlpool," he says, "where management would rather go eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches at their desks than cut that dividend."
Your best move
A simple way to identify such companies, Ablin says, is to look at the S&P's so-called Dividend Aristocrats list, which includes companies financially strong enough to have issued and raised payments to shareholders every year for at least two decades.
You can invest in these companies through a low-cost index fund such as SPDR S&P Dividend . The ETF, which is on the Money 50 recommended list, owns shares of more than 100 companies—including large-, mid-, and small-size stocks—and has beaten more than 90% of its peers over the past one, three, five, and 10 years.
Ultimately, diversification like this won't return you to 5% yields anytime soon. But mixing up your sources of income to include high-quality stocks and foreign shares and companies of all sizes is your best bet to reduce risk and seek greater opportunities, Benz says.
And while you're at it, diversify one other thing: Your sources of cash, she adds. "In some environments, your dividend payments and bond yields will be good enough to meet your needed cash flow in a given year in retirement," Benz says.
But there may be times when you fall short. Rather than take undue risk at those moments by reaching for higher yields, don't be afraid to periodically sell some appreciated stock. "We're not saying yank it all out until it's gone," she says. But she is saying that this is a form of income diversification too.