As the economy and the stock market appear to be taking a breather this summer, investors have been scrambling to find investments that can provide a safe haven. Perhaps not surprisingly, dividend-paying stocks and mutual funds have become an investor favorite in recent weeks. According to Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, since early May, U.S. dividend-focused exchange-traded funds have seen the third-highest level of inflows among various categories of equity funds. If growth is expected to slow, it makes sense to focus on stocks that provide consistent dividend payments to give total returns a boost.
If your portfolio is light on dividend power, think about upping your exposure to this segment of the market. One of the quickest and easiest ways to get diversified exposure to dividend payers is through inexpensive exchange-traded funds. Let's look at some of the better dividend-focused ETFs on the market today.
Big names, big profits
U.S.-based large-cap stocks have long trailed behind their racier and more exciting small-cap counterparts. In the past decade, the S&P 500 has returned 2.6% annually, compared with a 6.9% annual showing for the small-cap Russell 2000 Index. But don't go ditching your large-cap names just yet. Small-cap stocks have lead in the early stages of the economic recovery, but as the market cycle matures and as growth slows, large-cap stocks should come back into favor. That means you need plenty of big names on your side, generating consistent dividends.
Three of the most popular dividend ETFs around are Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE: VIG ) , iShares Dow Jones Select Dividend Index (NYSE: DVY ) , and the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYSE: SDY ) , all of which boast more than $5 billion in net assets. Of these, the Vanguard fund is by far the cheapest, with a mere 0.18% price tag, making this a great dividend starter fund for almost any investor. Vanguard Dividend Appreciation currently sports a 2.1% yield and a 4.2% annualized five-year return. If you're not keen on this fund however, I think the SPDR fund takes second place, and the iShares fund ranks in at third, based on price, performance, and overall suitability.
A full range of options
And while large-cap stocks should make up the bulk of your dividend-seeking portfolio (and your general domestic stock market allocation), there is still room for some small- or mid-cap dividend-yielding names. Clearly, there won't be as many small-cap firms that make consistent dividend payouts a feature of their business, but stocks further down the market capitalization spectrum could provide greater growth opportunities.
If you want smaller dividend payers in your portfolio, you might want to consider the WisdomTree MidCap Dividend ETF (NYSE: DON ) or the WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (NYSE: DES ) . Both funds sport small asset bases and charge 0.38% a year for the price of admission. Here, you'll get exposure to smaller and lesser-known companies that you won't see in large-cap-focused funds. Both of these funds are newer to the market than the more established large-cap dividend funds, but they should provide adequate diversification for investors looking to spread out their dividend bets. Just be sure to keep any allocation to funds like these on the small side; right now you want larger names to do most of your heavy lifting.
Looking farther afield
However, the U.S. isn't the only place where dividend-paying companies set up shop. There are a growing number of foreign firms that also place a premium on providing shareholders with steady income payments. To fully diversify the dividend-yielding portion of your portfolio, you may want to add a fund or two that places their focus outside of U.S. borders.
Here, two decent options are SPDR S&P International Dividend ETF (NYSE: DWX ) and PowerShares International Dividend Achievers (NYSE: PID ) . The SPDR fund invests in roughly 100 companies from around the globe (excluding the U.S.) that offer high dividend yields. Companies from developed nations account for approximately 88% of assets, with emerging names taking up the remaining 12%. Likewise, the PowerShares fund employs a similar methodology and focus, with emerging market names making up 15% of the portfolio. At 0.45% and 0.57%, respectively, the SPDR and PowerShares funds are more expensive than domestic-focused funds but are still far more reasonable than comparable actively managed funds. There are also some dividend-focused ETFs that focus just on Japan, the Middle East, or Europe, but here I would recommend keeping as broad a focus as possible when investing abroad.
Lastly, for investors who want more exposure to emerging-market dividend payers, there are two newer funds on the market that could prove to be long-term winners: the SPDR S&P Emerging Markets Dividend ETF (NYSE: EDIV ) and WisdomTree Emerging Markets Equity Income ETF (NYSE: DEM ) . The WisdomTree fund has been around since mid-2007 and has racked up an impressive 10.6% annualized return in that time. As with any emerging markets exposure, you should be prepared for volatility with funds like these, and more conservative investors should keep allocations very low.
There is no guarantee that dividend producers will lead the market in all types of environments, but given where we are in our current market cycle, there's a good chance that financially solid companies that reward shareholders with dividends will do relatively well in the near future. So make sure you've got some coverage in this up-and-coming area.