The broad S&P 500 Index yields a paltry 1.7% today, which is a reflection of the low-yield environment in which dividend investors find themselves. To discover some big dividend yields, you need to venture into out-of-favor sectors. One to consider is energy, where you'll find Total (TTE 0.62%) offering a compelling 8.2% yield and Enterprise Products Partners (EPD 0.16%) an even higher 9.6%. For dividend lovers, these two beaten-down energy giants are worth a closer look.
1. Changing with the times
France's Total is one of the world's largest integrated energy companies, which means that its business spans from the well to the processing plant and all the way to the gas station. That diversification provides a great deal of balance to its business, helping it to weather tough periods. Right now, however, in the face of COVID-19-related economic shut downs, very little is going right for Total, or any of its peers. The stock is still down roughly 30% so far this year, even after the recent vaccine-related rally.
But Total has a long history of supporting its dividend and, in fact, has drawn a line in the sand for investors to monitor -- $40 per barrel oil. Management has repeatedly said it can continue to pay its dividend as long as oil averages around that level, including during Total's third-quarter 2020 earnings conference call. Oil appears to be sticking around this key level -- after all, it's very hard for most oil companies to turn a profit below that point. However, that dividend commitment is just one piece of the puzzle.
The next big story here is that Total is slowly shifting toward cleaner alternatives, using its fossil fuel energy business to pay for the transition. By 2030 it expects to generate about 15% of its revenue from "electrons." In other words, it's an out-of-favor energy investment with a clean energy hedge built in. That's worth a closer look while investors are still focused on the oil business.
2. Oil is not going away
While Total is busy shifting its business as the world transitions toward cleaner energy sources, there's a story that's getting lost. Oil and natural gas, even under some of the most conservative assumptions, will remain vital global energy sources for decades to come. That means that companies like Total will have to drill for it, and others, like U.S. midstream giant Enterprise Products Partners, will have to move it.
What's interesting here is that Enterprise, which is a master limited partnership, is largely paid for the use of the pipelines, processing plants, storage facilities, and transportation assets it owns. Through the first nine months of 2020, fees made up 87% of the partnership's gross operating margin. So the price of oil and natural gas are much less important to Enterprise than the demand for these fuels.
That said, energy demand has been weak because of the aforementioned economic shutdowns used to slow the spread of COVID-19. But even in the face of adversity, Enterprise was able to cover its distribution by a robust 1.7 times in the third quarter. That leaves plenty of leeway for continued trouble before there's a material risk to the distribution. The fly in the ointment is that growth might be difficult to come by in the future if the oil and natural gas industry doesn't bounce back. In fact, Enterprise has chosen to hold its distribution steady for four consecutive quarters after years of quarterly increases. So most of an investor's return will likely come from the distribution for the foreseeable future. But a 9.6% yield means that's still a pretty compelling return.
Time for a deep dive
It's not easy investing in sectors that are deeply out of favor, especially when there are big names cutting dividends and even going bankrupt. At this point, neither looks likely to happen at Total or Enterprise Products Partners, which makes both of them worth a closer look for dividend lovers. You'll need a strong stomach for sure, since their businesses are facing tough times. Make the effort to dig in here, however, and you'll likely find that they both stand out from the pack. And one, or both, might end up in your dividend portfolio.