One Investment to Avoid in Today's Market

Dividend-paying stocks are compelling to investors for many reasons. Not only do they tend to be less volatile as a group and provide a real cash return right away, but they can also reflect management's long-range visibility on profits and show its commitment to partnering with shareholders.

Back in 2006, WisdomTree Investments presented its concept of weighting some of its equity ETFs not by each company's market value (as was the traditional indexing approach popularized by Vanguard), but rather by total dividends paid. WisdomTree's rationale made some sense -- at least in theory.

Indeed, it supported this theory by back-testing the strategy from 1964 to 2005 and found that not only did the portfolios exhibit lower volatility, but that "four of the six WisdomTree Domestic Dividend Indexes generated greater price appreciation than the S&P 500 Index, even without the reinvestment of dividends."

The problem was, this dividend-weighted theory rested on one enormous assumption: that the dividend-paying environment would continue to behave roughly the same way it had for that 41-year testing period.

Oops
As we're all now well aware, the dividend landscape has dramatically changed. The past 14 months have been the worst stretch for dividend investors in modern history. Sixty-two S&P 500 companies slashed their payouts some $40.6 billion in 2008 alone.

Another $16.6 billion in dividend cuts -- a record -- already came in the first 50 days of 2009, including cuts from traditional stalwarts like Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) . Standard and Poor's expects S&P 500 dividends to decline some 13.3% this year -- the worst decline since 1942.

Needless to say, these massive dividend cuts have adversely affected WisdomTree's dividend-weighted strategy. As of Jan. 31, none of the six domestic dividend ETFs had outperformed the S&P 500 since their respective inception dates.

In fact, the worst-performing WisdomTree domestic dividend ETF has been the High-Yielding Equity Index (DHS) -- or as it was recently and curiously renamed, the Equity Income Index. Whatever name it goes by, this dividend-weighted ETF is down 59% since inception in 2006, much worse than the 40% lost by the S&P over the same period.

The wide underperformance of the ETF is largely a result of its dividend-weighted design, which is to "reflect the proportionate share of the aggregate cash dividends each component company is projected to pay in the coming year, based on the most recently declared dividend per share." In other words, if company A is expected to pay $500 in cash dividends next year, it should have a larger weight in the index than company B, which is expected to pay $250.

Handcuffed
Under normal circumstances, that sounds like a nice way to generate extra dividend income and stack your bets behind strong companies. This year, though, has been anything but normal. It's been the higher-yielding stocks whose dividends have been under the most pressure.

To illustrate this problem, as of Dec. 31, 2008, the High-Yielding Equity Index's top holdings were:

Company

% of ETF Assets

Current Dividend Status*

Stock Performance Since Dec. 31, 2008

General Electric (NYSE: GE  )

9.74%

Cut from $0.31 to $0.10

(59%)

AT&T (NYSE: T  )

7.38%

Raised from $0.40 to $0.41

(21%)

Pfizer

6.81%

Cut from $0.32 to $0.16

(28%)

Bank of America

5.02%

Cut from $0.32 to $0.01

(77%)

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  )

4.50%

Cut from $0.38 to $0.05

(47%)

Verizon (NYSE: VZ  )

4.07%

Remains at $0.46

(18%)

Wells Fargo

3.97%

Dividend vulnerable

(72%)

Philip Morris International

3.53%

Remains at $0.54

(24%)

Merck (NYSE: MRK  )

2.64%

Remains at $0.38

(27%)

US Bancorp

2.32%

Cut from $0.42 to $0.05

(64%)

*Dividend per share per quarter.

Adding insult to injury, the ETF only rebalances once annually, rendering it effectively helpless in a rapidly changing dividend environment. As dividend-dependent investors flocked out of stocks that dramatically cut their payouts, this ETF has had to sit and grin it out. All 10 of these stocks remain in the ETF's top 15 holdings to this day, despite the massive dividend cuts.

A better way
For investors seeking to benefit from the advantages of dividend-paying stocks, the WisdomTree Equity Income ETF is one investment to avoid. With dividends being slashed left and right in this market, selectivity is essential and mechanical strategies like this one are left at a major disadvantage. Among other things, savvy dividend investors will want to look for companies with solid balance sheets, a history of increasing dividend payouts, and plenty of free cash flow to cover the payments.

One company that fits this bill is Johnson & Johnson and is one that our Motley Fool Income Investor team has classified as a "Buy First" stock. At present, Income Investor picks yield 8% on average.

A 30-day trial of Income Investor is free. If you'd like to learn more about the service, just click here.

Todd Wenning congratulates Miami University (Ohio) on its bicentennial year. He owns shares of Philip Morris International, but of no other company mentioned. JPMorgan Chase and US Bancorp are Income Investor picks. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value choice. The Fool has a disclosure policy that tells it like it is.


Read/Post Comments (10) | Recommend This Article (132)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2009, at 7:40 PM, rgperrin wrote:

    These are, indeed, words of wisdom. How easy it is to get blindsided!

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2009, at 9:52 PM, nicko168 wrote:

    I call it "SELL"

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2009, at 10:28 PM, megesquire wrote:

    Of course, the current dividend return from Income Investor does not reflect the losses from thosse stocks previously recommended and subsequently dumped when they cut their dividends, e.g, Pfizer, thus diluting the "return".

  • Report this Comment On March 05, 2009, at 11:05 PM, cautiouswillie wrote:

    Good points. But what the author did not point out is there are stocks whose dividend can not be cut. Preferred stock. Normally boring, now paying yields of 15% to 50% per year, depending on your appetite for risk. Look for instance at Lasalle (LHO) preferred stock: the dividend and interest are covered more than twice (safe), yet the yield is over 20% per year. And the stock itself will almost triple when sanity returns to the market. Buffett is happy with 20% per year. Tripling stock price, that's just a bonus.

    It's not the only one, just an example. There are many others. Point is: in times like these, when common dividends are cut, it pays to look at the less publicized preferred stocks...

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2009, at 12:38 AM, Jaycee5351 wrote:

    How would one find these perfered shares? Are they indicated by a different code? For example "T" or "ATT" Sorry iIm still a begginer at buing stocks on line in a self directed IRA. Thanks!

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2009, at 8:06 AM, pondee619 wrote:

    "How would one find these perfered shares?"

    Check out:

    http://www.quantumonline.com/Index.cfm

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2009, at 11:17 AM, tom728 wrote:

    Great job......by all !

    Thank you.These days posts end up in the

    acrimony file !

    Tom

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2009, at 11:43 AM, briboe wrote:

    One investment to avoid: a subscription to The Motley Fool

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2009, at 6:11 PM, marydot wrote:

    So many truths have been "curiosly renamed" like a residence being referred to as an "investment"...really threw everything out of whack.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2009, at 7:35 AM, catchusifu wrote:

    cautiouswillie, What is(are) the ticker(s) for the preferred LHO you own? LHO P/E of 21?! Guess I shoulda bought on March 6! Thanx for the QuantunOnline link.

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