Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Understanding Dividend Yields

The search for high dividend yielding stocks continues as investors seek alternatives to the abysmal yields on fixed income securities. A stock yielding 3% in the context of a US Treasury 10-year yield of 1.55%, definitely looks attractive. Well, maybe.

Dividend yield is the projected annual dividend per share of a particular stock, divided by the price. So if General Motors, for instance, is paying an annual dividend of $1.52 per share and the stock is trading at $32, the dividend yield is 4.75%. Far better than the 10 year Treasury.

But there are three important points to remember for those investors buying high dividend yielding stocks. The first consideration is that dividends are declared each quarter by the board of directors and, therefore, can be cut or suspended at any time. We've all seen this happen to stocks like Conocophillips (COP) that announce a dividend cut earlier this year. After entering 2016 with a dividend rate of $0.95, the company cut its dividend in Q2 to $0.79, and in Q3 to $0.49.  The stock now trades at $41, fully 25% off its recent November 2015 high of $55.  Meanwhile, other large integrated oils, not cutting their dividends, have risen considerably over this period.

Second, the dividend yield is an annual number. In other words, if you purchase the stock, hold it for a year and the dividend rate does not change you earn a dividend yield, in the case of GM, above, of 4.75%. Now, of course, what is important to investors is not the annual dividend yield, but rather the total return in holding the stock. For instance, taking this same example, if you buy GM today at $32 and it closes one year from today at $30.5, just one and one-half point lower, your total return for the year is exactly zero - quite a bit less than the yield on that US Treasury.

These two considerations are fairly obvious, but there is one more point for dividend investors that's often overlooked. The dividend yield when you purchase a stock is only the projected yield you are to receive (assuming no cut to the dividend rate) at the price at which you acquire the stock. In the example above, the dividend yield for GM purchased at a share price of $32 today is projected to be 4.75%. 

But what happens to your yield over time, is of equal importance. Let's say that you find GM an attractive investment at the prices and yields mentioned. Now, let's say that you hold GM for a year and the price rises to $35. Well, you've done quite well on the investment. Your total return for the year would be $14.12% (9.375% in price, plus a 4.75% dividend). But at this point, assuming no increase in dividend rate, your projected dividend yield has fallen to 4.34%. Still a very impressive yield. But for stocks that have risen appreciably, the current estimated dividend yield may be far less than when the investor purchased the stock. As such, investors should periodically reconsider why they are holding the stock and its estimated dividend yield on capital currently deployed.