Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Financial Stocks for Dividend Investors

Financial stocks, which used to be great dividend investments, have had their share of troubles over the past two years. The sector has rebounded sharply since hitting its lows in March. Since the major dividend growth stories of the past such as Bank of America (BAC) and US Bancorp (USB) have cut dividends, most dividend growth investors seem to have a very low allocation to the sector. As a result dividend investors could suffer inferior risk adjusted returns in the future since they won't own any financial stocks.

There are several alternatives for investors who are underweight the financial sector right now. One of them involves purchasing shares in some of US insurance companies such as Aflac (AFL) or Chubb (CB), which offer decent yields and have a long history of dependable dividend growth.

Another alternative is buying shares in the five major Canadian banks, which seem to have escaped the financial meltdown. While none of them have increased their dividends in over one year, they have not cut them either. In addition to that major Canadian banks spot very decent yields as well. It is important to check individual payout ratios in order to gauge the sustainability of the dividend payments. The major Canadian banks include
Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) , Bank of Montreal (BMO), Royal Bank of Canada (RY), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS).

Buying Preferred stocks could also be a decent bet on the long recovery of US financial institutions. Preferred shares have a higher ranking than ordinary shares in the event of a bankruptcy, but a lower priority relative to bonds. Preferred stocks do not have voting rights but have a fixed dividend payment, just like a bond. Preferred stockholders are also first in line to receive dividend payments, which are typically fixed. They don’t typically get to share in the prosperity of the enterprise however as preferred stock dividends do not increase. In tough economic conditions however, preferred stock dividends are much less likely to be cut or suspended; as long as the company continues operating as a going concern preferred stock dividends continue getting paid. In addition to that if you buy a cumulative preferred stock, the company is obligated to pay distributions to you even if it skips a few payments. That is of course as long as the company is not bankrupt. These two ETFs PFF and PGF are good vehicles to gain exposure to preferred stocks. Most of the issues they hold are in the financial sector.

Some investors also believe that the major US financial institutions would one day return to their former glory. This could mean that companies like Bank of America (BAC), Citigroup (C) and US Bancorp (USB) could yield very decent returns if they were to increase distributions to their 2007 levels. This option of getting exposure to financials is the riskiest of all, since most of the TARPed financial institutions are already paying billions in dividends to the Treasury every year. In addition to that the Treasury and other strategic investors might elect to convert their preferred stock into common, which would dilute existing shareholders. Last but not least it is very difficult to forecast how the US banking industry would look like a few years from now. Just because a bank survives the meltdown, does not mean it would be a solid long-term investment.
The strong gains off the March lows have definitely pushed financial stocks in overbought territory. Thus, if you believe that owning US banks provides you with the best exposure to the US financial sector, you might consider waiting to buy them on pullbacks.

These options could either be used on a standalone basis or in a combination. As a dividend growth investor I currently own mostly insurers and have a position in one of the Canadian banks. I might add to my Canadian exposure, which also provides international diversification for my portfolio.

Full Disclosure: Long AFL, CB and TD

This article was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance 221- Labour Day Edition

Relevant Articles:

- Best Dividends Stocks for the Long Run
- 12 Dividend Stocks to own in this market
- Wells Fargo (WFC) – show me the money
- The Dividend Edge
- Which Bank will be next? Follow the dividend cuts

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