Dividend plays are likely to remain attractive in 2012, but steeper valuations, in utilities and tobacco for instance, may encourage investors to stretch their search to select consumer stocks.
As the New Year begins, much of corporate America remains flush with cash, unwilling to expand aggressively because of lingering global economic uncertainty. For investors, that means in addition to announcing share buybacks, corporate boards are opting to reinstate dividends, sustain long records of paying dividends, or even hike their quarterly payouts.
In general, dividend stocks look to continue to reward longer-term investors otherwise collecting anemic yields elsewhere. That's because the scenario that proved so favorable to dividend stocks this year isn't going to change dramatically overnight.
"The economic woes in Europe are creating volatility for U.S. markets that is not going to abate any time soon," says Jay Wong, co-manager of the Payden Value Leaders Fund (PYVLX). "Investors have grown fearful of the market and that reality, combined with low interest rates, means that dividend-oriented stocks may be a good way to invest in the months going forward."
Wong's fund is up approximately 9 percent for the year through mid-December compared to the S&P 500's 2 percent rise. The fund yields about 5 percent versus 2 percent for the S&P 500. Wong seeks out stocks that are "cash cows." Several of the fund's existing holdings, Altria Group (MO), Bristol Myers Squibb (BMY), Public Storage (PSA), and Verizon (VZ) are yielding more than 4.5 percent.
This fund and its peers are proof that investors don't have to opt for individual stock ownership to take advantage of dividends.
With large-value funds, for instance, investors are buying attractively priced large-caps whose dividend yields make up for their slower-growth profile. Stocks in the top 70 percent of the capitalization of the U.S. equity market are defined as large-cap, according to Morningstar. Value is defined by low valuations—low price ratios and high dividend yields. These stocks and funds tend to be less volatile than other segments of the market and can prove less volatile during economic instability. But with that, they also tend to have slower growth rates for earnings, sales, book value and cash flow and the like, thus making their shares more likely to miss out on market upswings.
Expanded view. Wong likes to look beyond the usual suspects in the dividend world. His portfolio also includes real estate investment trusts (REITs), master limited partnerships (MLPs) and preferred stock.
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MLPs grant a "partnership" share in a project or business enterprise. Some of the best examples are natural gas pipelines, oil wells, coal projects and shipping concerns. Individuals or asset managers buy an ownership stake and shares trade on exchanges much like stocks.
MLPs pay out the vast majority of their profits (up to 90 percent) after expenses to shareholders. Yields trend higher than on traditional stocks. There are certain tax advantages over stocks as well. There is a risk in such investments. Historically, critics of MLPs have pointed to illiquidity and being "locked in."
For Wong, MLPs give his fund the opportunity for an energy play that's not directly exposed to energy prices. He opts for the pipeline owners that charge a "toll" for the interstate flow of oil and natural gas. One favored pick as of late 2011 is Enbridge Energy Partners (EEP), which he says has had "20 years of consistent distribution and no cuts to the payout."
Betting on the big screen. But although Wong is so far keeping up exposure to utilities (nearly 30 percent of the fund) he sees worth in select consumer plays too. He's banking on improving U.S. consumer spending with his inclusion of Regal Entertainment Group (RGC), a leading movie theater chain with some 6,500 screens. Higher ticket prices and the 90 percent margins on concessions boost the appeal. The "premium" movie-going experience, including the rise of 3D, appears able to withstand market share threats from home-based video-on-demand services, Wong argues.