Q: I’d like information on the “dividend aristocrats” that Warren Buffett has talked about. Should I buy them through a fund or a direct purchase plan? — Sheron Milliner
A: There’s no hard-and-fast rule about what stocks qualify as “dividend aristocrats,” but the moniker typically refers to companies that have consistently paid and raised their dividends — without fail — for at least several consecutive years.
The exact number of years is up for debate. Standard & Poor’s runs several equity indexes that track these types of companies. One benchmark that focuses on S&P 500 companies requires at least 25 consecutive years of dividend increases; a broader-based U.S. index looks for stocks that have boosted their payouts for 20 years or more; and a European version defines a dividend aristocrat as a stock that has boosted its payments for at least 10 straight years.
The dividend itself doesn’t have to be that large either — “it just has to be sustainable,” says Ron Weiner, CEO of investment advisory firm RDM Financial Group. “A company is showing its confidence in growth by increasing dividends as opposed to doing a one-time stock buyback or cash distribution.”
Companies that qualify as aristocrats tend to be value-oriented blue chips — think PepsiCo PEPSICO INC.
, Johnson & Johnson JOHNSON & JOHNSON
, and Walmart WALMART INC.
— as opposed to high-flying newbies.
That said, a company’s place in the court isn’t guaranteed. Banks were for many years dividend aristocrats, but many cut their payouts in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
For that reason – and for the sake of diversification – Weiner’s advice to investors interested in this strategy is to look for an exchange-traded fund (ETF) or mutual fund that focuses on dozens or hundreds of companies with track records for paying and boosting their dividends.
The SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY), for example, limits its universe to stocks that have increased their dividends for 20 consecutive years. Again, this isn’t to say it’s a forgone conclusion that these companies will continue to up their payouts. As Morningstar analyst Michael Rawson notes, because the fund weights its holdings by yield, it tends to favor lower-quality midcaps and value holdings.
Another ETF in this niche, the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats (NOBL), focuses on companies in the index with a 25-year record of dividend increase, but it gives equal weighting to all of its holdings.
It’s important to note that investors looking for income won’t necessarily find the highest yields among this group. Again, the key is consistency, says Weiner. “The point is to find good companies that have demonstrated that they can consistently grow their businesses over time.”
Although Weiner has used passive funds to tap into this group, he thinks active management may have an advantage here. “If something big happens, managers can react faster than an index,” says Weiner, whose firm has invested in the Goldman Sachs Rising Dividend Growth fund.
At the same time the fund sticks with companies that have raised their dividends an average of 10% a year over the last 10 years, its managers look for companies with the wherewithal to continue raising dividends in a meaningful way.
You could put together your own portfolio of dividend aristocrats by using one of the above portfolios as a starting point, but Weiner doesn’t recommend that approach. Even if you did assemble a diverse mix of dividend payers, keeping tabs on these companies is practically a full-time job.
“You can’t just buy and hold, and not pay attention,” says Weiner. “Aristocrats do get overthrown.”