The Basics of Investing in Dividend-Paying Stocks

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Those who are investing for income have numerous options outside of bonds, and the most traditional – and easiest to understand – the choice is high-dividend stocks. Although investing in the stock market involves more risk than investing in bonds, dividend-paying stocks offer modest income and the potential for longer-term capital appreciation.

High-dividend stocks have become a more popular option for income-oriented investors in recent years since traditional fixed-income investments such as bank accounts, certificates of deposit, and U.S. Treasuries pay next to nothing. At a time of low bond yields, the typical 1.5%-5% yield you can get from dividend-paying stocks becomes much more attractive.

Key Takeaways

  • Investors who want exposure to high-dividend stocks can buy individual stocks, mutual funds, or ETFs like DVY, VIG, and SDY that emphasize dividends.
  • Stocks that pay dividends typically perform better than those that don't—both in the long term and during economic downturns.
  • Income investors may find that low-risk bonds offer more safety and high-risk bonds offer better income, but high-dividend stocks also offer the potential for capital appreciation.
  • High dividends can be a sign that the stock has crashed for fundamental reasons, so it's important to ensure that a stock's underlying business justifies the dividend yield.

Benefits of Dividend-Paying Stocks

High-dividend stocks tend to outperform the broader market over time. According to Ned Davis Research, U.S.-based dividend-paying stocks returned an average 9.3% annually from January 31, 1972, through December 31, 2013, far exceeding the 2.3% average annual return for stocks with no dividends. Additionally, more than half of the total return of U.S. equities from 1930 through the end of 2010 was the result of dividends rather than price appreciation.

Historically, dividend-paying stocks also perform better than the overall market during times in which stock prices are weak. Since stocks that pay dividends are generally more conservative and have stronger cash flows than those that do not, investors tend to gravitate toward dividend payers during times of trouble.

Dividends, by returning actual cash to shareholders, also provide an indication of the strength of the business underlying the stock. Additionally, companies tend to use their resources more efficiently when they are less plentiful – which cash is once dividends have been paid. Higher dividends mean more cash in the hands of investors, and less in the hands of a management team that may not necessarily make the right decisions.

What’s in a Yield?

Naturally, there is more to dividend-based investing than simply searching for stocks with the highest yields. In some cases, elevated dividend yield can serve as a warning that a stock’s price might be depressed for a fundamental reason. Investors also look for companies with strong fundamentals backing up the dividend, such as robust earnings growth, solid balance sheets, and attractive valuations.

On the other hand, it isn’t necessary to give up growth to invest in dividend-paying stocks. Many companies with attractive yields are innovative world leaders – and not the type of stodgy, slower-growth companies that would provide investors with little in the way of capital appreciation potential over time.

Bonds Versus Stocks

Investors who are trying to decide how to allocate between stocks and bonds need to look at their broader investment objective.

If safety is the primary goal, the best course of action is to invest in more conservative instruments, such as government bonds or mutual funds that invest in short term bonds.

If income is the foremost consideration and an investor can afford to take on some risk, high yield bonds and emerging market bonds will usually be the best sectors in which to find the highest possible yields.

If capital appreciation is a priority and income is secondary – but still, a consideration – dividend-paying stocks can play an important role.

Naturally, there’s no need to invest in just one asset class. Very often, a combination of these and other investments is necessary to generate the optimal combination of risk, total return potential, and yield.

How to Invest in Dividend-Paying Stocks

Investors can assemble a high-dividend portfolio in three ways: buy individual stocks, invest in dividend-focused mutual funds, or utilize the wide range of dividend ETFs that have been created in recent years. Among the most popular dividend-focused ETFs are iShares Select Dividend Index ETF (ticker: DVY), Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG), and SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY). There are also numerous ETFs that invest in the highest-dividend stocks in particular market segments, such as small-cap stocks or emerging markets.

You can purchase stocks or ETFs through a broker, and mutual funds are typically available either from a broker or from the company via direct investment. Be sure to contact a financial advisor or use all the vast online resources available to conduct comprehensive research before investing.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. "Performance of Dividend-Paying Stocks Over the Long Term."

  2. Hartford Funds. "The Power of Dividends Past, Present, and Future," Page 8.

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