Building a nest egg out of dividend stocks and then retiring on the dividend income is one of the most reliable ways to build wealth.
The primary advantage of this strategy compared to pure index funds is that your investment income comes from fundamental business performance and their cash distributions, rather than relying on selling a percentage of your portfolio each year for income at whatever the current market price happens to be.
It’s also one of the most tax-efficient and low-cost ways to invest, and dividend stocks historically outperform the market.
This article gives a sample portfolio of dividend stocks I’m willing to buy, including ones I already own and ones I would add fresh capital to now.
It also covers some important dividend stock metrics to look at, and some common mistakes to avoid.
Start from the beginning, or jump to the section you want:
- Picking the Right Stocks: 3 Common Mistakes
- Key Metrics to Look For in Safe High Dividend Stocks
- Sample Portfolio: 20+ Names to Consider
Picking the Right Stocks: 3 Common Mistakes
Normally, stocks with lower dividend yields and faster dividend growth are suitable for younger investors that are looking to maximize total returns, while stocks with higher yields and less growth are suitable for retirees that want to live off the income now.
However, there are a few major pitfalls that investors tend to fall into when they assemble a high-yield portfolio:
Mistake #1) Too Much Sector Concentration
High-yield stocks are commonly found in energy, real estate, utilities, consumer products, and a few other sectors. They’re less commonly found in tech stocks and some other industries.
If you make a requirement that, for example, every stock you pick has to have a 4% yield or higher, you’re seriously limiting your sector exposure, which means you sacrifice diversification and may miss out on where the strongest areas of growth are coming from.
A better approach is to have an overall portfolio average yield in mind, and assemble it that way. For example, it’s smart to pick a master limited partnership yielding 6% per year with slow growth, but then also pick a tech company yielding 2% per year while growing its dividend far faster.
Your average yield in this case would be a solid 4%, and you’d have exposure to traditionally lower-yielding sectors.
A second option is to balance a portfolio with some ETFs. For example, you could assemble a portfolio of high dividend stocks but then also hold 10% of your portfolio in the PowerShares QQQ ETF to provide much-needed tech exposure to your overall portfolio.
Mistake #2) Falling into Liquidity Traps
This mistake is kind of a subset of the previous one, but it’s even more important to be aware of.
Some businesses are net buyers of their own stock, meaning they reduce their share counts over time, which boosts earnings per share and dividends per share. All else being equal, a lower share price benefits their per-share growth because they can buy back a larger percentage of their shares each year with a given amount of money than if their shares were expensive.
Other businesses are net sellers of their own stock, meaning they regularly issue new shares and use that capital to invest in new projects and make acquisitions. Traditionally high-yield industries like real estate investment trusts (REITs), master limited partnerships (MLPs), yieldcos, and business development companies (BDCs) usually fall under this category. They’re paying out most of their cash flow as dividends, so in order to raise new capital and expand they need to issue new shares. All else being equal, they do very well when their shares are expensive.
Here’s the problem. Companies that are heavily reliant on selling shares to fund growth can quickly collapse if their share price gets too low, because they can no longer profitably sell their shares to fund projects. There’s a red line somewhere for each of these net sellers of stock for which they can not grow per-share value by selling new shares to raise capital. For example, if their share prices sink and their dividend yield is 12%, they can’t issue new shares to fund projects that give them only 10% returns. They then have to rely on debt or cutting the dividend to raise liquidity.
Example: The Kinder Morgan Debacle
Most dividend investors are aware of what happened to Kinder Morgan (KMI) and a bunch of other MLPs a few years ago.
Kinder Morgan was considered the blue chip version of a master limited partnership; the long-standing gold standard of its industry. They built extensive pipelines throughout the United States, and funded that growth by issuing new units and by using high levels of debt leverage. For a very long time, this was a market-beating strategy with an amazing combo of yield and growth.
But when oil prices crashed in 2014, the industry ran into a serious problem and MLP valuations fell dramatically.
For a normal corporation, this would not have been as big of a deal. But because Kinder Morgan was reliant on continually issuing new shares to fund growth, and its share prices were suddenly cut in half, it quickly fell into a liquidity trap by losing its usual source of new capital. And because they were already highly leveraged, they couldn’t take on too much new debt.
As a result, they had to cut the dividend to reserve liquidity and remain in business, and years later they are still recovering.
How to Protect Yourself
First, only expose a portion of your portfolio to REITs, MLPs, and other businesses that need to continually issue new shares to fund growth. When markets fall, you don’t want to be in a position of having most of your assets turn into liquidity traps. The good news is that the MLP industry blew up enough times that now many of them are self-financing, and no longer need to issue new shares.
Second, when you do invest in MLPs, REITs, and similar business models, try to stick to the ones with the least debt and the highest credit ratings. The less leverage one of these businesses has, the more options it has to fund growth during hard times when its equity prices fall to unacceptable levels.
Lastly, because the industry saw what happened to Kinder Morgan, many of the most conservative MLPs and REITs are purposely lowering their dividend/distribution payout ratios over time (not by cutting, but by growing at a slower rate than funds from operations) in order to reach a point where they no longer have to issue new shares/units to fund growth. You can pick businesses that are not-reliant or less-reliant on issuing new shares.
For example, Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) now grows by using internal cash production without issuing any new units, but can still do so as an option if they want. Enbridge (ENB) recently consolidated all of its partnerships into itself to become self-funding as well. The recovered version of Kinder Morgan is self-funding now as well, with a low payout ratio and vastly reduced debt levels.
Mistake #3) Complete Lack of International Exposure
The tradition of raising dividends each year, through recessions and all, is historically an American corporate practice.
Many foreign companies pay higher yields, but sometimes they go up, sometimes they go down, and sometimes they stay flat for a while depending on business conditions. American blue-chips tend to want to build 10-year, 25-year, or even 50-year records of consecutive annual dividend increases. And this is attractive for dividend investors.
In addition, because foreign stocks pay their dividend in another currency, even if they raise their dividend it might not translate into higher dollar yields for American investors.
Lastly, foreign stocks are less well-known and comfortable to American investors, so they are often avoided.
The problem here is that sometimes the United States stock market becomes highly overvalued. When this happens, decades of data tells us that mean reversion occurs- the United States market underperforms relative to international stocks for a number of years as valuations rationalize.
Here’s a chart of historical annualized stock performance for Europe, the Pacific region, and the United States, from various decades:
Source: Ben Carlson, CFA
Sometimes one region vastly outperforms another and becomes overvalued, and then lags other regions for a while. As Ben Carlson calculated, if you were to invest in all three equally and re-balance once per year, your total return would be 10.6% per year, slightly higher than any of the three individually. And you’d have fewer no-growth decades.
Right now, the United States is one of the most expensive markets in the world and it’s important to have international exposure where stocks are cheaper and dividend yields are higher.
To add international exposure, American investors can either pick individual global stocks, or you can simply hold a few foreign ETFs to help balance out your individually-selected American stocks.
Safe High Dividend Stocks: Key Metrics
Dividing the annual dividend/distribution by the existing stock/unit price gives you the dividend yield.
About 2-3% is solid, while 4% or higher is fairly high-yield.
Look to see how quickly the dividend grows each year, and how reliable that growth is.
Some companies have literally grown their dividends for over 50 consecutive years. Most specifically, look to see what happened to their dividend during the last recession.
Dividend Payout Ratio
The percentage of earnings that the business pays in dividends is the dividend payout ratio.
The higher the payout ratio, the less safe the dividend is because a small earnings decline would leave the dividend uncovered. But of course, the stability of the cash flows is relevant: MLPs, REITs, and utilities can maintain high payout ratios because their operations tend to be very stable.
For a dividend-growth corporation, try to look for names with payout ratios below 60%.
For REITs and MLPs, try to look for ones where the dividend or distribution is less than 85% of Adjusted Funds From Operations or Distributable Cash Flow (AFFO, or DCF, depending on how they report it) and that have balance sheets better than their competitors. They will have higher valuations and lower yields than some of their shakier peers, but their risk of a dividend or distribution cut is far less.
The total debt divided by the total shareholder equity gives you an idea of how leveraged the company is.
You should also look at Debt/EBITDA and the interest coverage ratio to have a fuller understanding of their financial position, and compare those figures to the company’s competitors.
Return on Invested Capital
The return on invested capital is one of the most important metrics Warren Buffett uses to estimate business performance. Companies with high ROIC for long periods of time likely have an economic moat and a lucrative business model, because they can reliably generate superior returns on their capital, and grow fast.
This metric is better than Return on Equity (ROE) because it takes leverage into account. Looking at the Return on Equity is good for banks and some other industries, but for most companies the ROIC is a more complete assessment of their performance.
Look to see if the number of shares outstanding is decreasing or increasing over time, or staying the same.
A company that is increasing its share count is relying on continually raising new capital, and it would be detrimental for their growth if their share price were to fall. See the above point about liquidity traps.
Sample Portfolio: 20+ Names to Consider
Always do your own due diligence, but here’s a sample portfolio of some of the best high dividend stocks I’m bullish on for the long-term:
I built this using M1 Finance, which is a free investment platform that is great for managing position sizes. I use it myself and often recommend it to people. (See my disclosure policy here regarding my affiliation with M1.)
Midstream/Infrastructure Businesses (EPD, ENB, KMI, BIP, STAG)
Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) and Enbridge (ENB) have among the strongest balance sheets in the industry, don’t pay any IDRs, have strong distribution coverage ratios, and have held up fairly well during energy price declines. Kinder Morgan (KMI) has had trouble in the past but is now a self-funding lower-leverage dividend grower.
Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (BIP) is similar to an MLP. It is a global infrastructure partnership, and holds assets like utilities, toll roads, and cell towers.
Stag Industrial (STAG) is a REIT that provides warehouse and logistics infrastructure for e-commerce and other types of companies.
Financials (TFC, USB, TRV, MAIN)
Banks and insurers prefer moderately higher interest rates, so it’s good to have exposure to them now that we’re in a higher interest rate environment. This part of the portfolio helps balance the asset-heavy REITs and MLPs that prefer lower interest rates.
Commodity Producers (CNQ, NTR)
Commodity producers provide useful inflation protection, and in some decades can radically outperform other types of investments. This generally occurs after a prolonged period of underinvestment in the commodity that they produce.
Others (VZ, BTI, PM, UL, WHR)
Verizon (VZ) pays high yields and offer diversification from the other types of high dividend stocks in the portfolio. Whilrpool (WHR) is a manufacturer of household appliances.
Unilever (UL) is a consumer products business with a large exposure to growing populations in emerging markets. British American Tobacco (BTI) and Philip Morris (PM) produce various tobacco products for consumers around the world.
Gold Stocks (AEM, GOLD, FNV, RGLD)
The list finishes with 4 half-size allocations to gold stocks, representing 8% of the total portfolio as a hedge against global uncertainty and monetary weakness.
Franco Nevada (FNV) and Royal Gold (RGLD) are among the safer ways to have some exposure to gold, because they make money from royalty payments from mining companies and have a consistent track record of dividend growth.
Barrick (GOLD) and Agnico Eagle (AEM) are top gold miners with management that has a long history of generating market-beating returns, and that are stable enough to pay dividends.
Completing the Portfolio for Diversification
Just holding 20+ North American high dividend stocks doesn’t really make for a well-rounded portfolio.
So, we can use ETFs in the sample portfolio to increase diversification and expand international exposure.
International Diversification (IEMG, VYMI, EWS, IFN,EWZ)
I believe that over the next 20 years, most portfolios should have some exposure to emerging markets, which is where most global growth is coming from going forward.
- Related: Emerging Markets Investing Guide
Additionally, Vanguard International High Yield ETF (VYMI) gives investors broad access to high yield stocks from outside of the United States, mostly from developed countries.
Singapore (EWS) and Brazil (EWZ) are some of the world’s highest-yielding countries, and provide additional foreign dividend income. Singapore serves as a great gateway to Southeast Asia because they have banking assets throughout the region, while Brazil is one of the most important commodity producers in the world.
The India Fund is a closed-end fund that has historically kept up with the MSCI India benchmark and provides high income yields from a combination of dividends and returns of capital.
Sector and Options Diversification (VNQ, CII)
The portfolio includes a fund called the BlackRock Capital and Income Fund (CII).
It holds a diverse basket of stocks and sells covered call options on a portion of the portfolio to generate additional investment income. It helps give the investor access to a wider number of companies and sectors without sacrificing yield.
Additionally, I added VNQ to the mix for a bit more real estate exposure.
Putting it All Together
The way M1 Finance works is that you can build “investment pies” that have various slices (stocks or ETFs), and then you can use those investment pies as slices within your larger portfolio.
In this case, I put the above two lists together with a 60% allocation to the earlier investment pie of dividend stocks, and 40% in the investment pie of additional ETFs and funds for diversification:
The overall portfolio has a yield over 5.5%, but also has broad sector and geographic diversification, as well as considerable growth potential.
The total expense ratio for the portfolio (from the ETF side) is 0.20%, the platform is commission-free, and it’s very easy to rebalance or add new capital to maintain the proportions of the portfolio.
To be safer, you could also add bonds or bond funds, but this particular one focuses on equities.
Investing in safe high dividend stocks is a smart long-term strategy, at least for a part of your portfolio, especially for people that need reliable investment income or that like to invest in individual companies.
But it pays to be cautious by not concentrating too heavily in certain sectors, not relying too heavily on REITs and MLPs for yield, and not putting all your assets in just your home country’s market.
Make sure you are diversified across numerous sectors and countries, that your companies have stronger balance sheets than their competitors, and that only a portion of your holdings rely on continually issuing new shares to fund growth.
You’ll have to sacrifice a little bit of yield for these stronger metrics, but it’ll be well worth it as your portfolio income remains intact through all parts of the business cycle.
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