Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Dividends: Which are safe and which may fall?

Dividends: Which are safe and which may fall?

Key: Dividend cover = Earnings / Dividend

The income from shares offers some protection against a bear market – unless it is cut. We asked the experts which companies looked safest.

By Richard Evans
Published: 6:57AM GMT 05 Mar 2009

Share prices have been falling for months now but for many investors there has been one crumb of comfort: dividends.

After all, share prices can recover if you don’t sell – and hanging on can be relatively painless if the income from your investment is maintained or even increased.

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But there have been some worrying developments for dividends recently. HSBC, the bank that seemed relatively unscathed by the financial crisis, was forced to cut its payout; now there are rumours that BP may have to freeze its dividend for the first time in years because of the falling oil price.

So we asked the experts which dividends they thought should be safe despite the turmoil – and which ones could be at risk.

Ian Lance, manager of the Schroder Income fund, said: "Despite all the concerns about the sustainability of dividend payments in the face of falling profits, we believe those invested in UK equities are still being well rewarded, particularly as yield is becoming increasingly difficult to find in many other areas of investment.

"The dividend yield on the highest yielding UK equities has risen to its highest point in around 20 years – even if you exclude financials. The dividend yield on non-financial stocks now exceeds the yield on 10-year government bonds."

As for concerns about how resilient these yields will be, Mr Lance said dividend levels were likely to fall across the UK market as a whole over the next couple of years, but he remained confident that a number of companies had sufficient dividend "cover" – the degree to which the dividend is exceeded by earnings – to support their current payouts even if earnings fell.

Schroders believes that the most resilient and attractive dividend streams will be among the long-established, well-diversified "mega caps" and companies that declare dividends in US dollars, given that sterling’s weakness pushes up their value. "These include names such as GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Royal Dutch Shell and Vodafone, which we bought some time ago when they were out of favour with other investors and consequently undervalued, and which we continue to hold today," said Mr Lance.

Jonathan Jackson, an equity analyst at Killik & Co, the stockbroker, is not convinced that BP's dividend is under threat; he expects it to be safe for at least this year and next. "My reading is that BP will let gearing [borrowing relative to equity] increase," he said. "Holding the dollar-denominated dividend means 23pc growth for British shareholders, resulting in a yield of 10pc."

He also backs Vodafone, which is yielding 6.5pc, pointing to its strong balance sheet and "fairly defensive" qualities. "Tobacco stocks such as BAT and Imperial Tobacco have stable cash flows throughout the cycle," he added.

Hugh Duff, an investment manager at Scottish Investment Trust, said that among his holdings were two companies likely to maintain, or possibly grow, their dividends: Serco and De La Rue.

"Serco is a leading international services company operating in a broad range of sectors, servicing both private and public markets. The long-term nature of Serco’s contracts and the significant order book give us confidence in the company’s defensive and highly visible earnings growth," he said.

"De La Rue is the world’s largest commercial security printer and literally has a licence to print money. The company's main operation is the production of 150 currencies on behalf of central banks. The demand for currency printing is expected to continue to show stable growth, with a key driver being the increasing use of cash machines which require notes to be in mint condition. De La Rue has a very good track record of returning the profits from this business to shareholders through special dividends and dividends."

Turning to companies seen as candidates for cutting their dividends, Mr Jackson singled out BT Group. "There are trading difficulties in the global services division and a pension fund gap," he said. A recent ruling from the pensions regulator that pensions should take priority over dividends made a cut more likely, he added.

"The consensus in the City is that the dividend could be halved but we don’t know the size of the pensions deficit. BT used to put £280m into the fund annually to reduce the gap, now it could need to put in twice that figure. The cost of the dividend is £1.2bn."

Mark Hall, a fund manager at Rensburg Sheppards, voiced concern about life insurers. He said: "The sector I am most concerned about now regarding dividend payments is the life assurers such as Legal & General and Aviva. They have big bond portfolios and are vulnerable to any further dislocation in the financial system putting even greater pressure on their solvency ratios.

"This contrasts with the general insurance companies and Lloyd's specialists such as Royal Sun Alliance and Amlin, where we think the dividend prospects are really quite good."

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