If you’ve paid close attention to the markets here lately, it may seem like many companies — as well as investors — have caught “dividend fever.” And for good reason.
With interest rates near record lows and companies sitting on record amounts of cash, it’s been prime season for dividends. Times are good, and companies are feeling generous.
Companies have been hiking their payouts at a steady pace in recent years and show no sign of letting up. In fact, FactSet Research analyzed the broad spectrum of publicly traded U.S. stocks and found that companies paid out nearly $1.1 trillion in dividends in 2012. That’s roughly 20% higher than a year earlier.
The prospects for 2013 are looking even better. According to a recent report by Standard & Poor’s, companies are on track for a record year for dividend payments. Companies boosted dividend payments by 12% in the first quarter alone and 15.5% in the second quarter — a trend that should continue well into the future.
I spend a lot of time talking about the benefits of investing in solid dividend payers. And now may be one of the best times to invest in these kinds of companies. Many of these companies are flush with cash and primed for giant dividend increases.
But today, I’m here to tell you the picture is not always rosy.
As we all know, history repeats itself. Just five years ago, dozens of companies were forced to reduce — or completely ditch — their dividends as profits dried up and companies took a more defensive posture. So even as you scour the landscape for companies capable of solid dividend growth, you also need to steer clear of ones that are forced to buck the current trend and slash their payouts.
Here are four warning signs of a company with a vulnerable dividend:
1. An unsustainable payout ratio
Companies tend to dedicate 20% to 40% of their profits to their dividend. But when the payout ratio (dividend payments dividend by net income) rises above the 50% mark, you may want to investigate what’s going on. Trouble often begins when profits begin to fall. It’s a good exercise to look up the current payout ratio for all of your current holdings. If that figure has been rising fast toward 100%, the company may soon have to take the unpopular but necessary step of reducing or eliminating the dividend.
Keep in mind that some types of investment vehicles, such as master limited partnerships and real estateinvestment trusts are required to pay 90% or more of their profits to investors. So in these cases, a payout near 100% is neither uncommon nor undesirable.
2. Too much debt
In a move that reeks of recklessness, some companies may actually start to borrow money to support their rising dividend payments. Taking on debt increases the risk that a company will run into deep trouble if theeconomy slumps. The problems can be compounded if a portion of the debt is due in just the next year or two. Pretty soon, the company will be forced to choose between paying back its lenders and defending the dividend payments. And in this fight, the lenders will always win.
Take office machines supplier Pitney Bowes Inc. (NYSE:PBI) as an example. Earlier this year it was one of the top-yielding stocks in the S&P 500. But, the company was saddled with more debt than twice its cash levels. This mature company was unlikely to take on any more debt, and roughly 70% of its income was paid out to dividends in 2012. Not surprisingly, this company eventually had to chop its dividend in half in April.