What's the safest way to invest in high-yielding dividend stocks?
The investing world presents an apparently concrete inverse relationship between safety and returns; there is a supposed dichotomy between a low-risk investment and a high-yielding investment. Investors are always looking for a way to capture both, and financial professionals are always trying to find ways to package investment products that present both. If you are looking at dividend-paying stocks specifically, it is best to define what you mean by "safe" and "high-yielding."
"Safe" can be either relative or concrete. If your version of "safe" means that there is absolutely zero downside risk, you are not investing in equities anyway; dividend stocks are not for you. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) protects demand deposit accounts and certificates of deposit up to a certain limit, so you do not suffer any nominal losses there, but you lose out to inflation.
Dividend-paying stocks are attractive because they allow shareholders to profit directly when the company profits and because dividend reinvestment has historically produced superb wealth-building results over long periods of time. Dividends are still attached to equities, which makes them relatively riskier than bonds or FDIC-insured accounts. Even companies with great track records of paying dividends can lose share value, cut dividend payments or go out of business. There is a difference between high dividends and safe dividends.
Simply looking at dividend yields and stock price appreciation is never a good way to pick an equity investment. There have been plenty of historical examples of large dividend yields spiraling out of control and getting ready to be cut. If you are convinced that you want to invest in single shares of dividend-paying stocks, do your homework on the company itself. Learn how to evaluate its financial health and future prospects. There are some companies that pay out dividends even when they operate at a short-term loss.
Another way to reduce the risk exposure with high-dividend yield stocks is to avoid putting your faith in a single company by using mutual funds. There are mutual funds centered around companies with high-dividend yields. As with any mutual fund investment, you might lose out on some upside capture if a company soars but it only makes up a small percentage of your portfolio.
Be wary of companies with high dividends but low retained earnings per share. It may vary from industry to industry. In general, companies must reinvest some profits to make sure that they can continue profitable operations in the future, and that is impossible if there are no retained earnings. You can find all of the information about revenue, net profits, dividends and retained earnings on a firm's income statement and balance sheet.
There is no zero-risk, high-yielding investment. This is especially true with individual company shares, even those that have been around for a long time and have a history of high-yielding dividends.
There are a couple of ways to approach this idea. First, you can limit how much capital you invest to an amount that doesn't cause you any distress in the event of a 50% draw-down. And, yes, draw-downs that large can and do occur. If you are comfortable with a $10,000 draw-down, then don't invest more than about $20,000. Second, consider an ETF that is comprised of multiple dividend-paying stocks. This will still be susceptible to draw-downs, but you will limit your company-specific risk and face primarily market and interest rate risks.
The safest way to invest in stocks (dividend-paying or not) is within the context of a widely diversified portfolio, spread out over multiple asset classes. But diversification won't shelter you from the inherent risk of the stock market. Although dividend paying stocks tend to be less volatile than many other classes of equities, they are not immune to the effects of the normal ups and downs of the market.
That being said, there are several Exchange Trade Funds (ETFs) that specifically target the high-dividend asset class. To target U.S. markets, take a look at iShares Select Dividend (DVY), Revenue Shares Ultra Dividend (RDIV), or the Vanguard High Dividend Yield (VYM). For International exposure, consider iShares International Select Dividend (IDV), the SPDR S&P International Dividend (DWX), or Guggenheim’s X Super Dividend (SDIV).
The safest way to invest in high-yielding dividend stocks is to use the index approach. There is a fund company that specializes in that, its name is Wisdom Tree.
Take for example one of its ETFs called DHS, or Wisdom Tree high dividend fund, it invests in the 30% of companies that pay the highest dividend yields and it uses a fundamental weighting approach. The weight of a particular stock in the fund is determined by its dividend yield, not its market cap.
High dividend stocks are extremely volatile during a prolonged bear market. I did a study in which I held a portfolio of top 30% high dividend yield stocks during the Great Depression, when the market dropped 86%. This portfolio recovered in 3 and half years while the overall market did not recover until 12 years later. See a summary of study here:
That is the million dollar question. The way I do it is to own some large cap, stable companies with solid balance sheets across various sectors. You must do your underwriting and one of the metrics I use is cash flow versus earnings. This is because earnings can be manipulated due to allowable expenses, whereas cash flow is more difficult to manipulate. And "free cash flow" is the amount of cash available to shareholders after all liabilities, expense, interest to bondholders, etc., are paid. It is the amount left to shareholders to either reinvest back into the company or pay out in dividends. This would be the portion of my portfolio that I would have for longer term, known as "strategic."
And don't just screen for the highest yielding dividend stocks because sometimes they are paying a higher dividend for a reason. They may be riskier, like a junk bond pays higher interest than an investment grade bond. This is because the junk bond has to in order to attract money to compensate for the risk. Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway doesn't pay the highest dividend because it doesn't have to. It is a stable, well diversified conglomerate. I am not saying you don't want higher yielding dividends, just that you have to evaluate the risks.
In addition to the individual stocks, I would own dividend paying exchange traded funds, or ETFs, specializing in dividends. This would be for the mid-term "tactical" portion of my dividend portfolio, and I could get broad diversified exposure with just one or two trades. But also, in this low interest rate environment, if rates rise quickly, it will put pressure on dividend stocks. So with just one or two trades, I could move a portion of my portfolio to cash until the rate at which rates were rising slowed and close to peaking. You could then re-enter the dividend ETFs at higher dividend yields and a lower price. This would be a lower risk level entry point and why I say "tactical."
Therefore, you want a portion of your portfolio in strong dividend stocks with the intention of holding and a portion of the portfolio in dividend paying ETFs where you would be more nimble. This is due to our current interest rate environment and where we are in the interest rate cycle. If we were already near the top and rates were more likely to come down than rise, I would feel a lot more comfortable using all individual dividend paying stocks. You would be buying them cheaper with a higher dividend.
But currently, they are fully valued with rates likely to rise. This means the risks are higher now. We have come through a 30 year cycle of dropping interest rates and are at the other end of the spectrum. This problem is even more acute with bonds. In fact, this is one bullish argument for dividend paying stocks over bonds. Bonds are even more "fully" valued than dividend stock. With either choice though, if rates rise quickly, both will come down. Wall Street loves to call this "a market adjustment." I call it losing money if you are holding the securities.
So, in my opinion, the "safest" way to own dividend stocks is to analyze the companies first, then pick the one with the highest dividend yield. Don't just screen for yield. Then also have an exit strategy for a portion of your dividend portfolio so you can re-enter at better risk level after a "market adjustment."
This was a more complicated question than you may have realized, and deserved a complete answer. In this environment, there is no easy solution and you can't just set it and forget it.
Hope this helps and good luck with your research, Dan Stewart CFA®