What Is Dividend Yield?

The dividend yield, expressed as a percentage, is a financial ratio that shows how much a company pays out in dividends each year relative to its stock price.

The reciprocal of the dividend yield is the dividend payout ratio. The dividend payout ratio is the ratio of the total amount of dividends paid out to shareholders relative to the net income of the company.

Key Takeaways

  • The dividend yield–displayed as a percentage–is the amount of money a company pays shareholders for owning a share of its stock divided by its current stock price.
  • Mature companies are the most likely to pay dividends.
  • Companies in the utility and consumer staple industries often having higher dividend yields. 
  • Real estate investment trusts (REITs), master limited partnerships (MLPs), and business development companies (BDCs) pay higher than average dividends; however, the dividends from these companies are taxed at a higher rate. 
  • It's important for investors to keep in mind that higher dividend yields do not always indicate attractive investment opportunities because the dividend yield of a stock may be elevated as the result of a declining stock price. 
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Introduction To Dividend Yields

Understanding Dividend Yield

The dividend yield is an estimate of the dividend-only return of a stock investment. Assuming the dividend is not raised or lowered, the yield will rise when the price of the stock falls. And conversely, it will fall when the price of the stock rises. Because dividend yields change relative to the stock price, it can often look unusually high for stocks that are falling in value quickly.

New companies that are relatively small, but still growing quickly, may pay a lower average dividend than mature companies in the same sectors. In general, mature companies that aren't growing very quickly pay the highest dividend yields. Consumer non-cyclical stocks that market staple items or utilities are examples of entire sectors that pay the highest average yield.

Although the dividend yield among technology stocks is lower than average, the same general that applies to mature companies also applies to the technology sector. For example, as of May 07, 2020, Qualcomm Incorporated (QCOM), an established telecommunications equipment manufacturer, had a trailing twelve months (TTM) dividend of $2.48. Using its current price of $78.83, its dividend yield would be 3.15%. Meanwhile, Square, Inc. (SQ), a relatively new mobile payments processor, pays no dividends at all.

In some cases, the dividend yield may not provide that much information about what kind of dividend the company pays. For example, the average dividend yield in the market is very high amongst real estate investment trusts (REITs). However, those are the yields from ordinary dividends, which are a different than qualified dividends in that the former is taxed as regular income while the latter is taxed as capital gains.

Along with REITs, master limited partnerships (MLPs) and business development companies (BDCs) typically have very high dividend yields. The structure of these companies is such that the U.S. Treasury requires them to pass on the majority of their income to their shareholders. This is referred to as a "pass-through" process, and it means that the company doesn't have to pay income taxes on profits that it distributes as dividends. However, the shareholder has to treat the dividend payments as ordinary income and pay taxes on them. Dividends from these types of companies (MLPs and BDCs) do not qualify for capital gains tax treatment.

While the higher tax liability on dividends from ordinary companies lowers the effective yield the investor has earned, even when adjusted for taxes, REITs, MLPs, and BDCs still pay dividends with a higher-than-average yield.

The formula for dividend yield is as follows:

Dividend yield = annual dividends per share divided by the price per share
How to calculate dividend yield. Investopedia 

The dividend yield can be calculated from the last full year's financial report. This is acceptable during the first few months after the company has released its annual report; however, the longer it has been since the annual report, the less relevant that data is for investors. Alternatively, investors can also add the last four quarters of dividends, which captures the trailing 12 months of dividend data. Using a trailing dividend number is acceptable, but it can make the yield too high or too low if the dividend has recently been cut or raised.

Because dividends are paid quarterly, many investors will take the last quarterly dividend, multiply it by four, and use the product as the annual dividend for the yield calculation. This approach will reflect any recent changes in the dividend, but not all companies pay an even quarterly dividend. Some firms, especially outside the U.S., pay a small quarterly dividend with a large annual dividend. If the dividend calculation is performed after the large dividend distribution, it will give an inflated yield. Finally, some companies pay a dividend more frequently than quarterly. A monthly dividend could result in a dividend yield calculation that is too low. When deciding how to calculate the dividend yield, an investor should look at the history of dividend payments to decide which method will give the most accurate results.

Advantages of Dividend Yields

Historical evidence suggests that a focus on dividends may amplify returns rather than slow them down. For example, according to analysts at Hartford Funds, since 1960, more than 82% of the total returns from the S&P 500 are from dividends. This assumption is based on the fact that investors are likely to reinvest their dividends back into the S&P 500, which then compounds their ability to earn more dividends in the future.

For example, suppose an investor buys $10,000 worth of a stock with a dividend yield of 4% at a rate of $100 share price. This investor owns 100 shares that all pay a dividend of $4 per share (100 x $4 = $400 total). Assume that the investor uses the $400 in dividends to purchase four more shares at $100 per share. If nothing else changes, the next year the investor will have 104 shares that pay a total of $416 per share. This amount can be reinvested again into more shares.

Disadvantages of Dividend Yields

While high dividend yields are attractive, it's possible they may be at the expense of the potential growth of the company. It can be assumed that every dollar a company is paying in dividends to its shareholders is a dollar that the company is not reinvesting to grow and generate more capital gains. Even without earning any dividends, shareholders have the potential to earn higher returns if the value of their stock increases while they hold it as a result of company growth.

It's not recommended that investors evaluate a stock based on its dividend yield alone. Dividend data can be old or based on erroneous information. Many companies have a very high yield as their stock is falling. If a company's stock experiences enough of a decline, it's possible that they may reduce the amount of their dividend, or eliminate it altogether.

Investors should exercise caution when evaluating a company that looks distressed and has a higher-than-average dividend yield. Because the stock's price is the denominator of the dividend yield equation, a strong downtrend can increase the quotient of the calculation dramatically.

For example, General Electric Company's (GE) manufacturing and energy divisions began underperforming from 2015 through 2018, and the stock's price fell as earnings declined. The dividend yield jumped from 3% to more than 5% as the price dropped. As you can see in the following chart, the decline in the share price and eventual cut to the dividend offset any benefit of the high dividend yield.

Chart showing the share price and dividend yield of General Electric Company (GE) stock

Dividend Yield vs. Dividend Payout Ratio

When comparing measures of corporate dividends, it's important to note that the dividend yield tells you what the simple rate of return is in the form of cash dividends to shareholders. However, the dividend payout ratio represents how much of a company's net earnings are paid out as dividends. While the dividend yield is the more commonly used term, many believe the dividend payout ratio is a better indicator of a company's ability to distribute dividends consistently in the future. The dividend payout ratio is highly connected to a company's cash flow.

The dividend yield shows how much a company has paid out in dividends over the course of a year. The yield is presented as a percentage, not as an actual dollar amount. This makes it easier to see how much return the shareholder can expect to receive per dollar they have invested.

Example of Dividend Yield 

Suppose Company A’s stock is trading at $20 and pays annual dividends of $1 per share to its shareholders. Suppose that Company B's stock is trading at $40 and also pays an annual dividend of $1 per share. 

This means Company A's dividend yield is 5% ($1 / $20), while Company B's dividend yield is only 2.5% ($1 / $40). Assuming all other factors are equivalent, an investor looking to use their portfolio to supplement their income would likely prefer Company A over Company B because it has double the dividend yield.