Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Free Article Join Over 1 Million Premium Members And Get More In-Depth Stock Guidance and Research

One Investment to Avoid in Today's Market

By Todd Wenning - Updated Nov 10, 2016 at 7:34PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

When good theories go terribly wrong.

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.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Merck & Co., Inc. Stock Quote
Merck & Co., Inc.
MRK
$73.42 (0.11%) $0.08
Verizon Communications Inc. Stock Quote
Verizon Communications Inc.
VZ
$51.07 (-0.68%) $0.35
AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
T
$23.28 (-0.77%) $0.18
JPMorgan Chase & Co. Stock Quote
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
JPM
$160.16 (1.18%) $1.87
General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
GE
$96.01 (3.49%) $3.24
Pfizer Inc. Stock Quote
Pfizer Inc.
PFE
$51.48 (-5.14%) $-2.79
DuPont de Nemours, Inc. Stock Quote
DuPont de Nemours, Inc.
DOW

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning service.

Stock Advisor Returns
624%
 
S&P 500 Returns
140%

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 12/06/2021.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Our Most Popular Articles

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with the Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from the Motley Fool's premium services.