Income investing, which aims to pick companies that provide a steady stream of income, is perhaps one of the most straightforward stock-picking strategies. When investors think of steady income they commonly think of fixed-income securities such as bonds. However, stocks can also provide a steady income by paying a solid dividend. Here we look at the strategy that focuses on finding these kinds of stocks. (For more on fixed-income securities, see our tutorials Bond & Debt Basics and Advanced Bond Concepts.)
Who Pays Dividends?
Income investors usually end up focusing on older, more established firms, which have reached a certain size and are no longer able to sustain higher levels of growth. These companies generally no longer are in rapidly expanding industries and so instead of reinvesting retained earnings into themselves (as many high-flying growth companies do), mature firms tend to pay out retained earnings as dividends as a way to provide a return to their shareholders.
Thus, dividends are more prominent in certain industries. Utility companies, for example, have historically paid a fairly decent dividend, and this trend should continue in the future. (For more on the resurgence of dividends following the tech boom, see How Dividends Work For Investors.)
Income investing is not simply about investing in companies with the highest dividends (in dollar figures). The more important gauge is the dividend yield, calculated by dividing the annual dividend per share by share price. This measures the actual return that a dividend gives the owner of the stock. For example, a company with a share price of $100 and a dividend of $6 per share has a 6% dividend yield, or 6% return from dividends. The average dividend yield for companies in the S&P 500 is 2-3%.
But income investors demand a much higher yield than 2-3%. Most are looking for a minimum 5-6% yield, which on a $1-million investment would produce an income (before taxes) of $50,000-$60,000. The driving principle behind this strategy is probably becoming pretty clear: find good companies with sustainable high dividend yields to receive a steady and predictable stream of money over the long term.
Another factor to consider with the dividend yield is a company's past dividend policy. Income investors must determine whether a prospective company can continue with its dividends. If a company has recently increased its dividend, be sure to analyze that decision. A large increase, say from 1.5% to 6%, over a short period such as a year or two, may turn out to be over-optimistic and unsustainable into the future. The longer the company has been paying a good dividend, the more likely it will continue to do so in the future. Companies that have had steady dividends over the past five, 10, 15, or even 50 years are likely to continue the trend.
There are many good companies that pay great dividends and also grow at a respectable rate. Perhaps the best example of this is Johnson & Johnson. From 1963 to 2004, Johnson & Johnson has increased its dividend every year. In fact, if you bought the stock in 1963 the dividend yield on your initial shares would have grown approximately 12% annually. Thirty years later, your earnings from dividends alone would have rendered a 48% annual return on your initial shares!
Here is a chart of Johnson & Johnson's share price (adjusted for splits and dividend payments), which demonstrates the power of the combination of dividend yield and company appreciation:
This chart should address the concerns of those who simply dismiss income investing as an extremely defensive and conservative investment style. When an initial investment appreciates over 225 times - including dividends - in about 20 years, that may be about as "sexy" as it gets.
Dividends Are Not Everything
You should never invest solely on the basis of dividends. Keep in mind that high dividends don't automatically indicate a good company. Because they are paid out of a company's net income, higher dividends will result in a lower retained earnings. Problems arise when the income that would have been better re-invested into the company goes to high dividends instead.
The income investing strategy is about more than using a stock screener to find the companies with the highest dividend yield. Because these yields are only worth something if they are sustainable, income investors must be sure to analyze their companies carefully, buying only ones that have good fundamentals. Like all other strategies discussed in this tutorial, the income investing strategy has no set formula for finding a good company. To determine the sustainability of dividends by means of fundamental analysis, each individual investor must use his or her own interpretive skills and personal judgment - for this reason, we won't get into what defines a "good company".
Stock Picking, not Fixed Income
Something to remember is that dividends do not equal lower risk. The risk associated with any equity security still applies to those with high dividend yields, although the risk can be minimized by picking solid companies.
Taxes Taxes Taxes
One final important note: in most countries and states/provinces, dividend payments are taxed at the same rate as your wages. As such, these payments tend to be taxed higher than capital gains, which is a factor that reduces your overall return.
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