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The S&P 500’s Shakiest Dividend

Find out the criteria for the S&P 500’s dividend that is most likely to be cut

By Carla Pasternak


Yield and Earnings Power

Dividend Coverage and Outlook

The Shakiest Dividend in the S&P 500


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Note from Cabot Wealth Advisory Editor Elyse Andrews: Occasionally, we bring you articles from guest editors that we think you will enjoy and benefit from. Today, you’ll hear from Carla Pasternak, Chief Investment Strategist of High-Yield Investing at StreetAuthority, as she discusses the criteria for the S&P 500’s dividend that is most likely to be cut. I hope you enjoy it!


Normally I’m hunting down the brightest spots for you to lock in income streams and capital gains. But with the recent market happenings, I wanted to do something a little different.

I wrote an article called the “Safest Dividend in the S&P” for Cabot Wealth Advisory on April 6. (You can read it here: )

But there’s a flipside to that coin. If you now know the safest dividends in the S&P, shouldn’t you also know the least safe ... especially given the clear signals that this economic rough patch isn’t over yet?

With this in mind, I’ve taken the criteria I used to uncover the safest stocks, and put it to use to uncover which S&P 500 stocks might be the most in danger of a dividend cut.


Safety Criteria #1: Yield

It only makes sense that our search starts with the most important factor--yield. There may be some stocks out there currently yielding 2%-3% and in danger of cutting their dividend, but those don’t really catch my attention.

Instead, I sorted through all of the S&P 500 common stocks to find those yielding above 6%--these are the stocks that income investors are likely to have in their portfolios. I found a total of 14 stocks yielding above 6% (2.8% of the S&P).

Now that we’ve found a select few companies to focus on, we can move to our next factor of dividend safety: earnings power.

Safety Criteria #2: Earnings Power

It’s “Dividends 101" that a company’s earnings are what fund its payments. So if we’re looking for sick dividends, it only makes sense to find those companies seeing problems with their earnings.

Now, some people simply use net income for this step, but I prefer to look at operating income. Operating income is the profit realized from the company’s day-to-day operations, excluding one-time events or special cases. This metric usually gives a better sense of a company’s growth than earnings per share, which can be manipulated to show stronger results.

Taking our original 14 candidates, I searched Bloomberg for those that have seen negative operating income growth over the last year. Eight members of our original list have seen a drop:

Frontier Communications (NYSE: FTR)

Operating Income Growth: -1.2%

Yield: 12.1%

Federated Investors (NYSE: FII)

Operating Income Growth: -8.5%

Yield: 10.1%

Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO)

Operating Income Growth: -2.0%

Yield: 10.0%

Windstream (NYSE: WIN)

Operating Income Growth: -13.8%

Yield: 9.1%

Reynolds America (NYSE: RAI)

Operating Income Growth: -2.5%

Yield: 6.8%


Operating Income Growth: -6.8%

Yield: 6.8%

Pepco Holdings (NYSE: POM)

Operating Income Growth: -8.9%

Yield: 6.8%

Qwest Communications (NYSE: Q)

Operating Income Growth: -5.8%

Yield: 6.0%

Keep in mind that just because a company shows up on this list, it doesn’t mean their dividend is in danger--it simply means they are high yielding and operating income dropped over the last year.

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Safety Criteria #3: Dividend Coverage

No measure of dividend safety carries as much weight as the payout ratio. By comparing the amount of profit earned against how much is paid in dividends, we can know whether a company can continue paying its current yield, even if conditions worsen.

Below, I’ve listed those stocks with payout ratios above 90%. Anything above 100% means the company is paying out more than it earns, increasing the likelihood of a future cut.

Company -- Payout Ratio for most recent quarter

Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO) -- 96%

AT&T (NYSE: T) -- 100%

Pepco Holdings (NYSE: POM) -- 167%

Qwest Communications (NYSE: Q) -- 400%

Safety Criteria #4: Outlook and Other Factors

Simply because a company is seeing slowing business conditions and a high payout ratio doesn’t automatically mean a cut is coming. In fact, many companies have a sense of pride in maintaining their dividend payouts--even in the face of adversity.

So to pinpoint what could be the shakiest dividend in the S&P 500, I decided to take a look at a few different factors that could give a hint to a future cut. This includes earnings forecasts, cash positions, dividend history, and anything else that might tip the scales one way or another.

Blue-chip AT&T paid out slightly more than it earned in the first quarter (for a payout ratio of 100%), but I think the chances of a cut are doubtful. The company has more than $2.6 billion in cash it can use, and also has a proud history of increasing payments to investors. Factor in that depreciation costs (a non-cash charge that impacts earnings, but not cash available to pay dividends) are substantial, and I think the chances of a cut are further reduced.

Pepco, an energy company, is certainly an interesting situation. The company paid out $60 million in dividends in the first quarter, but earned only $36 million. While that raises a red flag, the company has more than $1.2 billion in retained earnings, which it can dip into if needed to fund any shortfall. Given that the first quarter performance appears to be an aberration, as Pepco has plenty of retained earnings, and a track record of maintaining the dividend, I think the payment is safe for now.

Qwest, which has paid out as much or more in dividends than it has earned for nearly a year, almost took the crown as the shakiest dividend. But it does sit on more than $1 billion in cash--and recently announced a takeover by CenturyTel (NYSE: CTL). With the cash hoard and a takeover on the horizon, the chances of a dividend cut now appear slim.

Which brings us to our final candidate--Diamond Offshore.

Diamond Offshore, an oil and gas drilling contractor, earned $2.09 per share in the first quarter while paying $2.00 in dividends, for a payout ratio of 96%. Meanwhile, earnings are estimated to fall more than 15% this year, according to Yahoo! estimates.

In fact, the company has already beat me to the punch--cutting quarterly dividends to $1.50 per share to compensate for the less-than-rosy outlook. While that certainly helps, I’m not so sure it’s positively the end of dividend cuts.

The biggest drag is the cloudy outlook on offshore drilling given the recent disaster off the coast of Louisiana. Diamond has heavy exposure to the region, and there’s no telling just yet what (if any) new regulations will be imposed and how they will impact business. In fact, the share price has already fallen from about $90 to $60 on the fears.

Diamond Offshore does carry a large cash balance of nearly $1 billion, which should help secure the dividend for the time being, but with clouds on the horizon, this is one income stream that I would pass up for now.

Good Investing!

Carla Pasternak

Dividend Opportunities

P.S. There is still plenty of hope for income investors. Carla has uncovered several picks with secure dividends that are yielding up to 22.7%. For more on these picks just follow this link.


Cabot Editor