With the echoes of the Fed's recent rate cut still ringing, these are trying times for income investors. Falling interest rates drive the price of dividend stocks higher, which lowers their dividend yields to better reflect the market's average payout. But, the inevitable bounce back of interest rates may ultimately work against the principal value of dividend-paying holdings. What are dividend fans to do?
The simplest and best answer is: Don't sweat it. The discussion of how changes in interest rates pose different risks to dividend stocks might make for good headlines, but it's a discussion that changes little about the reality income-seekers constantly face. That is, sometimes the environment works for you, and sometimes against you. Long-term owners of high-quality dividend payers need not worry about the short-term ebb and flow. Prices for most blue chip dividend stocks tend to self-adjust in a way that reflects the market's prevailing, risk-adjusted payouts at any given time.
To that end, here's a rundown of three top dividend stocks to buy in March, each beaten down by COVID-19 coronavirus and economic scares a little more than they should have been.
Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) has its challenges to be sure. It's still trying to figure out what to do with its deteriorating web properties Yahoo! and AOL, and the upcoming combination of T-Mobile and Sprint might create another formidable competitor.
All of that seems to be priced in, however, and perhaps more. The stock is now trading at a trailing P/E of less than 12.0 and a forward-looking P/E of only 11.3, both of which are as low as they've been at any point in the past four quarters.
The company's also in a business that's proven reliably consistent. Consumers may postpone the purchase of a vehicle or skip a vacation if money is tight, but they rarely cancel their phone service. In that regards, Verizon is almost as reliable as a utility, in terms of what it charges customers every month, and in turn in terms of what it passes back along to shareholders every quarter.
Its leadership within the 5G arena should drive growth too, in turn driving earnings that have more than adequately covered its ever-rising dividend payout. Per-share profits for the past four reported quarters stand at $4.65, versus last year's total dividend payout of $2.44 per share, a dividend that the company has increased for 13 consecutive years.
As rough as things have been for the market of late, they've been even rougher (and for longer) for crude oil. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) prices have fallen from nearly $65 per barrel in January to $34 now, and may be poised to move even lower. That makes it tough to be a fan of any energy name, even a powerhouse like BP (NYSE:BP).
But as the Warren Buffett saying goes, be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful. Traders are rather terrified crude prices could continue to slip, but this particular commodity has a funny way of reversing course in a big way when things appear bleak. That's certainly how things panned out back in early 2019. After WTI plunged from almost $76 per barrel in October 2018 to $43 just two months later, it snapped back to $66 by April of last year. Sure, OPEC failed to cut output last week and oil plummeted amid Monday's market rout. Crude prices may be at the point of capitulation now that it's priced at levels that will prompt more producers to stop drilling.
Whatever the case, while consumers may even cut back on gasoline consumption for a while, they're not going to stop driving altogether. That's going to help continue driving the dividend for the stock, which currently yields 7.9%. Newcomers will also be plugging into a company that, as fellow Fool Rekha Khandelwal explains, already had "plans to reduce leverage and grow free cash flows [that] make its yield attractive, especially for income investors."
Finally, if you're a believer in following the so-called smart money, consider utility PPL (NYSE:PPL). Point72 Asset Management, led by billionaire Steve Cohen, bought more than 2.5 million shares of the company during the final quarter of 2019, although he was one-upped when Wellington Management Group bought nearly 2.6 million shares of the Pennsylvania-based power company.
That's not necessarily a huge stake for either portfolio, but given the size of each fund and PPL's relatively modest market cap of $24.4 billion, what was nearly $200 million worth of capital allocated to the stock is nothing to shrug off.
The interest in the offbeat name isn't terribly tough to figure out. Aside from a reliable dividend that currently translates into a yield of 5.24%, PPL offers safety in a sea of uncertainty. With or without the coronavirus scare and fear of an ongoing marketwide meltdown, the impending retirement of CEO William Spence makes owning PPL something of risk, too. Will new chief Vincent Sorgi steer the company in a radically different and perhaps less profitable direction than Spence? Probably not -- utilities more or less run themselves. But, it's not impossible to run them into the ground, as PG&E shareholders can attest. The utility was forced into bankruptcy essentially because it failed to trim trees. Either way, with eight years of dividend growth under its belt and an industry veteran at the helm, the overall bet favors buyers more than sellers.