Background While the board may always opt to change the dividend, dividends are usually set at levels low enough to be able to sustain payment throughout the economic cycle (because dividend cuts are regarded as implying financial distress).
Dividend stocks have sometimes been disparagingly referred to as "widow and orphan" stocks as a reflection of their stable nature. However, after more than a decade of stock market volatility, low bond yields and stagnant money markets, it’s increasingly not just widows and orphans who see them as a key source of steady growth for their portfolios. As government debt hampers the growth of GDP in many developed countries such as the UK, dividend Investing is likely to return to popularity over the next few years. Among other things, dividend-paying stocks:
- Offer passive income and some insurance if the stock falls in price (unlike non-dividend-paying shares where returns aren't realized until you sell).
- Tend to be less volatile and do better in the long run than do nonpaying stocks (see S&P research below).
- Are subject to more stringent financial discipline, since they must make regular payments to shareholders. You can fudge earnings but you can't distribute cash returns to your shareholders if you don't have the money.
- Offer an inflation hedge if companies increase their payouts.
Definition of a Dividend Screen A popular approach to a dividend screen is simply to look for stocks with the highest dividend yield — the dividend divided by the original purchase price. This is often applied to stocks in a large cap index — in the US. this is known as the "Dogs of the Dow" (an investment strategy popularized by Michael B. O'Higgins in the early 1990s). However, getting decent dividends is only part of the battle. Making sure you pick stocks that can keep paying them — and increasing them — is much harder. Simply using the forecast dividend obviously relies on broker forecasts being a reliable source of information about the future — highly debatable!
For those looking to screen for dividend stocks, there are a wide of possible additional parameters that can be considered, including:
- Dividend streak: Historic consistency is a useful signal as company boards tend to want to sustain a long history of dividend payments (barring a BP-like "black swan" event) -> For how many years has a dividend payment has been made consistently?
- Payout Ratio: A low payout ratio (the percentage of earnings paid out in dividends) provides a margin of safety to ensure that dividends that are fully supported by earnings, whereas the dividend might be at risk with high payout ratios -> Is the payout less than or equal to, say, two thirds (and ideally in the 20-50% range) and/or below the median for companies in the industry?
- Market capitalization: Generally, larger companies are considered safer bets than smaller firms because they have the product diversity and experience to survive unexpected turns in the economy -> Is the market capitalization greater than, say, £250 million?
- Gearing: Dividend stocks should be supported by strong balance sheets, i.e., low debt-to-equity ratios and preferably lots of cash -> Is the debt to assets ratio below 50% or below the norm for the industry?
- Short-Term Liquidity: A stock's current ratio is a useful tool for measuring short-term cash liquidity as short term debt can be catastrophic without suitable cash reserves -> Is the current ratio above two?
- Dividend Growth Profile: Investors such as Benjamin Graham required that stock dividends at least keep pace with inflation -> Has the long-term DPS growth rate been greater than, say, 3% (or 10% in case of more growth-focused screens)? Has the annual payout increased every year? Is the current dividend yield greater than the five-year average dividend yield?
- Earnings Growth: Dividends are not guaranteed, so one needs to make sure the business is earning enough to pay the dividend -> Is the long-term earnings growth rate consistent and above average for the industry?
- Earnings Surprise: Another option might be to screen out stocks that have recently delivered a negative earnings surprise -> Have actual earnings fallen below analysts' estimates by more than 10% in the last three years? Have earnings estimates been revised more than 5% lower by analysts?
- High ROE: Another way to assess the quality of the dividend profile is to look at the return on equity, which helps investors identify profit machines that will generate extra cash to distribute in the form of dividends. Is the ROE above 10%?
- Excluding Utilities or REITs: Often these sectors are excluded in order to be screened separately since, otherwise, they tend to dominate the results and because they can have a different return profile.
Watch Out For As highlighted above, stratospheric yields can be tempting. However, often a super-high dividend yield can be a bad sign for a share, because it may mean the share price has fallen dramatically, reflecting market concerns about the underlying business, which means the dividend payment may not be sustained. Thus, it’s worth understanding the financial profile of the stock in detail.
From the Source: There are so many forms of dividend investing that there's no single reference source. However, it's worth referring both to O'Shaugnessy's discussion in What Works on Wall Street, David Dreman's "Contrarian Investment Strategies: The Next Generation" as well as The Future for Investors written by Jeremy Siegel, a proponent of "buy and hold" dividend-paying stocks. Stephen Dotsch has also recently written a useful "Guide to Dividend Investing" focused specifically on the UK market.
- Forbes: Why Dividends Matter
- AAII: Implementing a Dividend Yield Screen
- Screen test will reveal companies with star quality.
- Dividend Investing Is the New Buy and Hold
- Payout ratio: A key tool for dividend sleuthing
- In Search of Robust US Dividend Growth
- Dividend Investing in a Low Interest Rate Environment