The first income feature is the obvious — dividends! I love dividends, and they have excellent features that make them very attractive, such as their ability to meet or exceed the rate of inflation and the fact that they’re subject to lower taxes than, say, regular taxable interest or wages.
Dividend-paying stocks, called income stocks, deserve a spot in a variety of portfolios, especially those of investors at or near retirement. Also, I think that younger folks (such as millennials) can gain long-term financial benefits from having dividends reinvested to compound their growth (such as with dividend reinvestment plans).
The basics of income stocksI certainly think that dividend-paying stocks are a great consideration for those investors seeking greater income in their portfolios. I especially like stocks with higher-than-average dividends that are known as income stocks. Income stocks take on a dual role: Not only can they appreciate, but they can also provide regular income. The following sections take a closer look at dividends and income stocks.
Getting a grip on dividends and their ratesWhen people talk about gaining income from stocks, they’re usually talking about dividends. Dividends are pro rata distributions that treat every stockholder the same. A dividend is nothing more than pro rata periodic distributions of cash (or sometimes stock) to the stock owner. You purchase dividend stocks primarily for income — not for spectacular growth potential.
Dividends are sometimes confused with interest. However, dividends are payouts to owners, whereas interest is a payment to a creditor. A stock investor is considered a part owner of the company they invest in and is entitled to dividends when they’re issued. A bank, on the other hand, considers you a creditor when you open an account; the bank borrows your money and pays you interest on it.
A dividend is quoted as an annual dollar amount (or percentage yield), but it’s usually paid on a quarterly basis. For example, if a stock pays a dividend of $4 per share, you’re probably paid $1 every quarter. If, in this example, you have 200 shares, you’re paid $800 every year (if the dividend doesn’t change during that period), or $200 per quarter. Getting that regular dividend check every three months (for as long as you hold the stock) can be a nice perk. If the company continues to do well, that dividend can grow over time. A good income stock has a higher-than-average dividend (typically, 4 percent or higher).
Dividend rates aren’t guaranteed, and they’re subject to the decisions of the stock issuer’s board of directors — they can go up or down, or in some extreme cases, the dividend can be suspended or even discontinued. Fortunately, most companies that issue dividends continue them indefinitely and actually increase dividend payments from time to time. Historically, dividend increases have equaled (or exceeded) the rate of inflation.
Who’s well suited for income stocks?What type of person is best suited to income stocks? Income stocks can be appropriate for many investors, but they’re an especially good match for the following individuals:
- Conservative and novice investors: Conservative investors like to see a slow but steady approach to growing their money while getting regular dividend checks. Novice investors who want to start slowly also benefit from income stocks.
- Retirees: Growth investing is best suited for long-term needs, whereas income investing is best suited to current needs. Retirees may want some growth in their portfolios, but they’re more concerned with regular income that can keep pace with inflation.
- Dividend reinvestment plan (DRP) investors: For those investors who like to compound their money with DRPs, income stocks are perfect.
Investing in stocks that have a reliable track record of increasing dividends is now easier than ever. In fact, there are exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that are focused on stocks with a long and consistent track record of raising dividends (typically on an annual basis).
Assessing the advantages of income stocksIncome stocks tend to be among the least volatile of all stocks, and many investors view them as defensive stocks. Defensive stocks are stocks of companies that sell goods and services that are generally needed no matter what shape the economy is in. (Don’t confuse defensive stocks with defense stocks, which specialize in goods and equipment for the military.) Food, beverage, and utility companies are great examples of defensive stocks.
Even when the economy is experiencing tough times, people still need to eat, drink, and turn on the lights. Companies that offer relatively high dividends also tend to be large firms in established, stable industries.
Some industries in particular are known for high-dividend stocks. Utilities (such as electric, gas, and water), real estate investment trusts (REITs), and the energy sector (oil and gas royalty trusts) are places where you definitely find income stocks. Yes, you can find high-dividend stocks in other industries, but you find a higher concentration of them in these industries.
To learn more about high-dividend stocks, and much more about stock investing, check out my book Investing in Stocks For Dummies.
Heeding the disadvantages of income stocksBefore you say, “Income stocks are great! I’ll get my checkbook and buy a batch right now,” take a look at the following potential disadvantages (ugh!). Income stocks do come with some fine print.
What goes up …Income stocks can go down as well as up, just as any stock can. The factors that affect stocks in general — politics, megatrends, different kinds of risk, and so on — affect income stocks, too. Fortunately, income stocks don’t get hit as hard as other stocks when the market is declining because high dividends tend to act as a support to the stock price. Therefore, income stocks’ prices usually fall less dramatically than other stocks’ prices in a declining market.
Interest-rate sensitivityIncome stocks can be sensitive to rising interest rates. When interest rates go up, other investments (such as corporate bonds, U.S. Treasury securities, and bank certificates of deposit [CDs]) are more attractive. When your income stock yields 4 percent and interest rates go up to 5 percent, 6 percent, or higher, you may think, “Hmm, why settle for a 4 percent yield when I can get better elsewhere?” As more and more investors sell their low-yield stocks, the prices for those stocks fall.
Another point to note is that rising interest rates may hurt the company’s financial strength. If the company has to pay more interest, that may affect the company’s earnings, which, in turn, may affect the company’s ability to continue paying dividends.
Dividend-paying companies that experience consistently falling revenues tend to cut dividends. In this case, consistent means two or more years.
The effect of inflationAlthough many companies raise their dividends on a regular basis, some don’t. Or if they do raise their dividends, the increases may be small. If income is your primary consideration, you want to be aware of this fact. If you’re getting the same dividend year after year and this income is important to you, rising inflation becomes a problem.
Say that you have XYZ stock at $10 per share with an indicated annual dividend of 30 cents. The yield is 3 percent (30 cents @@ds $10). If you have a yield of 3 percent two years in a row, how do you feel when inflation rises 6 percent one year and 7 percent the next year? Because inflation means your costs are rising, inflation shrinks the value of the dividend income you receive.
Fortunately, studies show that, in general, dividends do better in inflationary environments than bonds and other fixed-rate investments do. Usually, the dividends of companies that provide consumer staples (food, energy, and so on) meet or exceed the rate of inflation. This is why some investment gurus describe companies that pay growing dividends as having stocks that are “better than bonds.”
Uncle Sam’s cutThe government usually taxes dividends as ordinary income. Find out from your tax person whether potentially higher tax rates on dividends are in effect for the current or subsequent tax year.
Stock dividends or company dividends?The term stock dividend is commonly used in financial discussions about the stock market. However, the reality is that dividends are not paid by stocks; they’re paid pro rata distributions of cash by companies. It may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it’s a fundamental difference.
Stock prices are subject to the whims of market buying and selling — one day the share prices are up nicely; the next day prices go down when that day’s headlines spook the market. Because the dividend isn’t volatile and it’s paid with regularity (quarterly usually), it’s more predictable. I think that investors should be in the business of “collecting cash flows” as opposed to fretting over the ebbs and flows of the market.
What does that mean? If a hundred shares of a given dividend-paying stock provide, say, $100 per year in annual dividends, the income-minded stock investor should keep a running tally of annual dividend amounts. That way, they keep investing until they reach a desired income level (such as $2,000 annual dividend income) and feel confident that this dividend income can be relatively reliable and will keep growing as payouts grow from company operations. Lastly, keep in mind that technically a “stock dividend” is actually a pro rata distribution of stock (and not cash).