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Posted by Craig Basinger on Apr 8th, 2024

Dividend Depression

Dividend investing is supposed to be easy. Find quality companies with long track records of paying or even increasing their dividends, buy some shares, collect your regular tax-advantaged payments over time and watch the share price go higher. Maybe in a strong bull market, dividend companies don’t rise as much, but they have better stability in down markets as most are lower beta than the overall market. Well, over the past year, the TSX has been up about 13%, while the Dow Jones Canada Select Dividend Index (a good proxy for dividend investing) has been up 3%. Trailing in an upmarket is fine, but not by that much.

The DJ Select Dividend Index was created in the late 1990s, and this is only the fifth time that it has lagged the broader TSX by more than 10% on a trailing one-year basis. Interestingly, most of the previous occurrences coincided with brief periods when a non-bank became the largest weight in the TSX. In the late 90s, it was Nortel; in 2007, it was Encana, Potash, and Blackberry. The 10% threshold was almost reached in 2015 when Valeant became the biggest company in the TSX. And in 2019, it was Shopify.

This makes this recent bout of underperformance of dividends vs the broader TSX rather unique, as the biggest stocks in the TSX remain dividend payers, including Royal Bank and TD Bank. Plus, the banks have been doing ok. Other dividend payers have dropped considerably and are dragging down the dividend space. Communication services (aka Telcos) are down 24% over the past year, and utilities are down 15%, two areas that are fertile with dividend-paying companies.

This has the valuations in the overall dividend space at roughly 10.5x forward earnings estimates, while the broader TSX is closer to 15x. That is a historically wide spread. It was wider in 2020, but that is because the TSX’s earnings almost went to zero during a pandemic; it was not because of a higher index price. While dividends may be cheap vs the TSX, the real crux of the weakness stems more from relative yields. Bond yields moved higher in 2022 and have been maintaining at historically high levels compared to the past decade. This is a clear competitive investment for those looking for yield.

Dividends have some real competition theses days

One could even argue that dividend yields need to increase more to remain competitive against yields available in the bond market. This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Bonds benefit from greater stability as a true risk-off asset class. Dividends benefit from a history of growing the dividend rate over time and some rather appealing tax treatment. Plus, the stock price could go higher while bonds mature at 100. However, dividends can also be cut, and companies can even go bankrupt. We will assume the five-year Government of Canada bond has a low default risk.

While the overall DJ Canadian Select Index dividend yield may not be particularly attractive compared to bond yields (as shown in the chart above), a closer look at specific sectors reveals a different story. The chart below illustrates the current dividend yield across various dividend-heavy sectors, comparing them to the five-year Government of Canada bond yields, the 10-year average spread, and the nominal dividend yield. While the overall dividend space may not be highly enticing on a relative yield basis, Telcos and pipes stand out, each offering a yield of about 7%.

There are some juicy yields out there

Final Thoughts

Given higher bond yields, the dividend space has become rather challenging over the past year. But it isn’t just bond yields. The increased popularity of other sources of yield has certainly risen over the past number of years, from the structured notes space to covered call strategies that are being applied to just about anything with a live option chain. The search for yield has never had so many choices. So what could turn this tide and help the performance of dividend payers close that gap with the broader market? We’re not sure; maybe a broad market sell-off that cools the more aggressive risk-on behaviour. Maybe central bank rate cuts or lower bond yields. Or maybe it’s just the realization that buying operating companies with decently safe dividends in the 5-7% range and attractive valuations offers a good risk/reward combination and a decent income stream as you wait out this dividend depression.

— Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments

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Sources: Charts are sourced to Bloomberg L. P.

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Craig Basinger, CFA

Craig Basinger is the Chief Market Strategist at Purpose Investments. With over 25 years of investment experience, Craig combines an educational foundation in economics & psychology with years of experience in both fundamental and quantitative research. A long-term student of the markets, Craig’s thoughts and insights can be seen in his Market Ethos publications and through his regular contributions on BNN.

Craig and his team bring a transparent and cost-efficient approach to investment management. The team provides asset allocation OCIO services and directly manages over $1 billion in assets. The team manages dividend mandates, quantitative risk reduction strategies and asset allocation services.