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.
As we’re all now well aware, the dividend landscape has dramatically changed. The past 15 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 $41.8 billion in dividend cuts — a record — already came in the first 90 days of 2009, including cuts from traditional stalwarts like Capital One Financial (NYSE: COF) and State Street (NYSE: STT). Standard and Poor’s expects S&P 500 dividends to decline some 23% this year — the worst decline since 1938.
Needless to say, these massive dividend cuts have adversely affected WisdomTree’s dividend-weighted strategy. As of Feb. 28, 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 48% since inception in 2006, much worse than the 29% 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.
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.
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.
By Todd Wenning