Taming Biases in High-Dividend Equity Strategies

Income-seeking investors are accustomed to casting wide nets after years of low yields. Many choose to tap more income from their equity allocations through high-dividend stocks. But it isn’t enough to simply stretch for yield—portfolio design matters. We think a systematic approach may produce a more diversified strategy that results in more core-like equity exposure.

High-Dividend Stocks Have Been an Effective Building Block

Stocks paying higher dividends showed their mettle during a challenging 2022: the S&P 500 High Dividend Index declined only a modest –1.1% even as the S&P 500 tumbled –18.1%. Historically speaking, stocks paying the most dividends have outperformed the broader market while low or no dividend stocks have trailed (Display).

High-Dividend Payers Have Outperformed over Time

Of course, high-dividend stocks aren’t always in favor, even if they’ve outperformed over the long run. From March 2000 through September 2006, the highest 10% of dividend payers beat an equal-weighted Russell 1000 Index by 11.56%, based on annualized returns (Display). But sometimes favoring the highest dividend payers hasn’t worked: from October 2006 to February 2009, they underperformed by 22.59% while lower-dividend stocks outperformed.

Because high-dividend stocks tend to have value traits, they can trail in growth-driven markets such as 2017 through September 2020, when the top 10% of dividend payers lagged by nearly –6.4% even as no-dividend companies outperformed by about 5.3%. Since late 2020, this relationship has reversed, with high payers leading and low payers lagging. As these examples demonstrate, simply reaching for the highest dividends can lead to pain in unfavorable market environments.

Performance of High-Dividend Stocks Varies Across Business Cycles

Strategy Design Choices Can Introduce Unintended Biases

In our view, much of the volatility in high-dividend strategies, broadly speaking, comes down to portfolio design choices, which can create very different characteristics (Display, left).

A basic collection of the highest-dividend stocks results in natural tilts toward industries where robust dividends are most common—such as utilities, energy, healthcare and consumer staples (Display, center). They also tend to be relatively light in exposure to high-growth companies that reinvest profits instead of distributing them.

The higher the dividend yield investors are after, the bigger the portfolio tilts needed to reach it—and the greater the chances of sizable performance differences from the broad market. When the MSCI USA High-Dividend Yield Index underperformed the S&P 500 from 2017 through late 2020, it averaged a 10% underweight to the technology sector. That bias translated into a sizable missed opportunity, as tech clobbered the S&P 500 by 90%.

Some high-dividend approaches go so far as to explicitly exclude any stocks that don’t pay a dividend. Because these stocks are a significant share of the S&P 500’s market cap (19% at the end of 2022), this decision can lead to significant tracking error versus the broader index.

Sector and style tilts can introduce a related risk—less market participation. Many popular high-dividend indices have betas between 0.80 and 0.95 to the S&P 500. That may help cushion against market sell-offs, but sizable sector biases might have the opposite effect—producing heavier drawdowns than the market (Display, right), depending on which sectors are under pressure. And the flip side of lower beta is a potential sacrifice in long-run growth potential.


A Systematic Hand May Tame Unintended Tilts While Harvesting High Dividends

Given the pitfalls of stretching too aggressively for income in equity exposure, what can investors do to access more yield in a disciplined way? As we see it, an active approach to choosing stocks and assembling a portfolio can help tame the inherent biases of simple high-dividend exposure.

We believe one effective path to tackling the challenge is to apply a systematic approach. Start with the objective of producing a market-like beta that will enable investors to maintain a higher level of broad-market participation. Coupling this with a targeted yield above that of the market, and managing risks around sector tilts, beta exposures and tracking error versus a broad equity allocation may create a formula for less risky high-dividend exposure.

We also think it makes sense to broaden the investment universe, looking beyond high-dividend payers to stocks with attractive thematic exposures—including value, quality, momentum and earnings revisions—that complement dividend yield. These exposures may also enhance long-term returns, playing an important role when the high-dividend-yield theme is under pressure.

The Big Picture: Pursuing Income Advantages…with Fewer Surprises

To sum things up, high-dividend equities are playing a growing role as a diversified income source for equity allocations, and they’ve historically outperformed broad equity indices. But a thoughtful, systematic portfolio construction is critical in avoiding the inherent risks of stretching for yield.

After all, investors’ goal should be to boost income while warding off unwanted performance surprises.

Cherie Tian, CFA
Portfolio Manager—Systematic Equity
Eugene Smit, CFA
Portfolio Analyst and Manager—AB Hedge Fund Solutions
Christopher Mason, CFA
Product Manager—AB Multi-Asset Solutions

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams and are subject to revision over time. AllianceBernstein Limited is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom. MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations, and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein.

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