For many investors, dividends were secondary to price appreciation and capital gain, especially during structural bull market rallies. However, this year when stocks slumped amid rising inflation, soaring energy prices, higher interest rates, and increasing geopolitical and macroeconomic risks, income generated through dividends became an integral part of the investment equation. Income from dividends contributes significantly to the stock market's total return when capital gains are lackluster and challenging.
Over the long run, dividends have contributed to the overall S&P 500 Index's total return picture. Dividends' contribution to the total return of the S&P 500 Index has varied over the past eight decades. During the 1940s, the dividend contribution to the total SPX return was 67%. In the 1950s (30%), 1960s (44%), 1970s (73%), 1980s (28%), 1990s (16%), 2000s (negative total returns), and the 2010s (17%). From the 1930s to the present, S&P 500 dividends accounted for around 42% of the total return for the SPX index.
During the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s, dividends played an influential role, contributing more to the overall SPX total returns, specifically when SPX returns for the decade averaged less than 10%. On the other hand, dividends played a less influential role during the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s, when the SPX annual total returns for the decade were double digits. Interestingly, during the prior bear market from 2000 to 2009, when the SPX produced negative returns, dividends provided a steady income stream, helping to minimize stock losses.
Dividend-paying stocks continue to play a critical role in any diversified portfolio. In a high-inflation environment, stocks must increase dividends to help maintain the purchasing power of a long-term portfolio. However, investing solely in the highest dividend-yielding stocks may not necessarily be the most effective investment strategy, at least from a longer-term perspective. Why? Because some of these high dividend-paying securities are in prolonged structural sideways to downtrends. When prices decline for many years, the yield can rise for the wrong reason creating value traps.
The best way to determine whether a company can pay a consistent dividend and even grow its annual dividends is by evaluating the payout ratio. History has shown companies with high payout ratios consistently raise their dividends over time and produce higher returns with less volatility than companies that cut or eliminate dividends.
Dividend growth investing has produced superior long-term returns because companies that consistently grow their dividends have a stronger balance sheet, strong management, stellar business, and are more committed to their shareholders.
Investors have turned to dividend growth investing, favoring companies with a solid track record (blue-chip names) that can consistently increase dividends annually. After all, companies that can raise their dividend payouts year after year suggest that these stocks are growing their bottom lines and have steady cash flows to generate long-term capital gains.
Dividend growth investing has consistently outperformed the stock market (SPX) and competing investment styles, generating higher risk-adjusted returns over the long term. However, this year investors have favored SPDR S&P 500 High Dividend ETFs (SPYD +0.69% year-to-date), ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL -2.17% YTD), and SPDR S&P 500 Value ETF (SPYV -3.08% YTD), Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG -6.40% YTD) over S&P 500 Index (SPX -16.20% YTD) and SPDR S&P 500 Growth ETF (SPYG -25.33% YTD).
Given the discrepancies in performances between the different investment styles, will there be a mean reversion as investors turn to the consistent and superior longer-term returns of dividend growth investing over growth-only investing? After all, investments that consistently grow income and, at the same time, protect their purchasing power seem to be a reasonable and sensible strategy in an ever-increasingly volatile market environment. Could there also be a structural shift toward the safety of dividend growth areas in anticipation of a secular bear or trading range market environment?
Although there are numerous dividend and dividend growth investment vehicles, the following are some of the more popular and liquid ETFs: Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG), WisdomTree US Dividend Growth Fund (DGRW), and SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY), and ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL).
ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats (NOBL) stands out as this ETF tracks an equal-weighted index of S&P 500 constituents that have increased dividend payouts annually for at least 25 years. A company that can increase its dividend payout for 25 years or more implies that it is stable, profitable, growth-oriented, and well-managed. Isn't this the primary reason investors buy total return stocks, for growth and income?
The companies in the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats that provide the lengthiest duration of consecutive years of dividend growth include DOV (67 years), GPC (66 years), PG (66 years), EMR (66 years), MMM (64 years), CINF (61 years), KO (60 years), JNJ (60 years), CL (59 years), ITW (58 years), HRL (56 years), SWK (55 years), FRT (55 years), and SYY (53 years).