Markets & Finance

Are Dividends in Dire Straits?


Many companies, especially banks, have had to slash or eliminate payouts. How low will dividends go?

Companies continue to slash dividend payments to shareholders, as firms rush to hold on to capital amid the continuing credit crisis and deteriorating economy.

The latest to slash its payout is financial firm State Street (STT), which on Feb. 5 dropped its quarterly dividend from 24¢ to 1¢ per share. On the same day, auto and truck dealer Penske Automotive Group (PAG) suspended its dividend.

In the past two months, corporate boards have cut dividends by half or more at Macy's (M), Pfizer (PFE), and Constellation Energy Group (CEG). Dividends have been eliminated—or nearly so, with payouts slashed 96% or more—at Bank of America (BAC), Motorola (MOT), and Citigroup (C).

The trend is disturbing to investors, who especially appreciate dividends at times of economic uncertainty.

"Investors are really looking for yield, and they're looking for safety," says Bruce Bittles, R.W. Baird's chief investment strategist. "Companies that cut their dividend take away both."

Howard Silverblatt, Standard & Poor's senior index analyst, says actual dividend payments by firms in the S&P 500 index plunged 23.9% in January. (S&P, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).) "It's going to be a bad dividend year," he says, predicting 2009 will be "the worst in at least 50 years."

Financial Crisis Is a Huge Blow

Thanks to the financial crisis, it's no surprise that many of these dividend-cutters are banks. To make up for large losses and shore up their capital, financial firms aren't just cutting dividends but also taking federal government bailout money.

"The financial sector has been stripped of [its] dividends," says Daniel Peris, a portfolio manager of the Federated Strategic Value Fund (SVAAX). That's a huge blow to dividend-focused investors, because the financial sector traditionally made up a quarter to a third of the dividend income from the U.S. stock market.

Dividend cuts may actually be a positive for already-battered financial firms. For many banks with strained finances, "it seems to be a better management move to not pay your dividend," says Standard & Poor's equity analyst Stuart Plesser. A dividend cut can help avoid other less attractive options for raising cash, such as issuing new stock, which dilutes current shareholders' stakes. "It's the lesser of two evils," Plesser says.

Investors eager for dividend income may stay away from financial stocks for a while, but that won't necessarily protect them. Because of the sharp downturn in the economy, nonfinancial stocks are slashing dividends. "Outside of financials, it's a little surprising how quickly these things are coming unraveled," Bittles says.

Federated's Peris is less concerned. He says dividend cuts during a recession are to be expected in cyclical businesses like industrial, materials, and consumer discretionary firms. Expect firmer dividends from firms focused on consumer staples, health care, utilities, and telecom, as well as large integrated energy firms.

S&P Dividend Aristocrats List Faces Upheaval

Thus, a classic consumer discretionary stock like Macy's cut its annual dividend from 53¢ to 20¢ per year after a tough 2008 holiday season. The move, announced Feb. 2, should save the department store chain $138 million per year.

Commodity firms have been hit hard. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (FCX) suspended its dividend in December.

However, Peris argues, responsible dividend investors never expected these sorts of firms to hold on to dividends during recessions.

The S&P Dividend Aristocrats is a list of 60 large-cap U.S. firms that have raised dividends every year for the past 25 years. The list will look very different next year. By announcing dividend cuts, several prominent firms, including Bank of America, State Street, Fifth Third Bank (FITB), and Pfizer, are set to break their streaks. Newspaper firm Gannett (GCI) is also likely to lose its crown; on Jan. 30, the firm said its board would consider a dividend cut later this month.

Still, many less troubled firms are hanging on. A healthy number of firms continue to raise dividends, even if shareholders are seeing smaller increases. AT&T (T) claimed its 25th annual dividend increase in December, when it inched up its payout by 2.5%. The year before, AT&T's dividend had risen 12.7%.

In this environment, any increase in dividends, no matter how small, can help inspire the confidence of market players desperate for some safety and stability. However, the overall trend of falling dividends gives investors one less reason to get excited about stocks these days.

Ten Major Companies That Have Reduced Dividends

Company

Divd. Chg. (%)

Motorola (MOT)

-100% (dividend suspended)

Macy's (M)

-62%

Newell Rubbermaid (NWL)

-50%

Pfizer (PFE)

-50%

Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB)

-93%

Constellation Energy Group (CEG)

-55% (company guidance)

Bank of America (BAC)

-97%

State Street (STT)

-96%

Citigroup (C)

-96%

Penske Automotive (PAG)

-100% (dividend suspended)

Ten Major Companies That Have Raised Dividends

Company

Divd. Chg. (%)

Abbott Laboratories (ABT)

+10.8%

Hudson City Bancorp (HCBK)

+55.6%

Family Dollar Stores (FDO)

+8%

Monsanto (MON)

+10%

CVS Caremark (CVS)

+10.5%

Waste Management (WMI)

+7.4%

Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY)

+4.3%

Boeing (BA)

+5%

AT&T (T)

+2.5%

Honeywell International (HON)

+10%


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