Central bank actions so far this year have performed the essential role of keeping government borrowing costs low but, for those seeking income, the negative side effect is that low-risk income options are increasingly scarce.
Investors have been turning to higher risk asset classes, including equities, for income over recent years, yet dividend cuts have become a hot topic as companies look to shore up balance sheets against the shock from Covid-19. While we acknowledge that many companies – particularly those who are receiving government support – may find it difficult to maintain payouts over the coming months, it is essential not to mistake what, for many firms, will be a cyclical issue for a structural one. On a regional basis, we see US dividends as most resilient. The lower dividend payout ratio of the US market provides companies with more flexibility to maintain dividends in periods of weaker earnings. Higher use of buybacks provides a buffer for companies to cut before dividends are hit. Regulatory pressure on banks, in particular, has also been lower so far in the US than in Europe.
Riskier parts of fixed income, such as corporate credit and emerging market debt, are other areas that may warrant attention when hunting for income. The Federal Reserve’s decision to buy both investment grade and high yield credit for the first time helped to pull spreads back from their widest levels in March, but credit spreads still sit significantly above their levels of the start of 2020. Central bank purchases in both the US and Europe should provide something of a backstop for corporate bond prices in the second half of the year, although we advocate an increasingly selective approach as investors move further down the quality spectrum and the need to differentiate between (more temporary) liquidity issues and (more permanent) solvency issues becomes more important.
Outside of fixed income, real assets may also have a larger role to play in portfolios as an alternative income source. While asset prices in areas such as infrastructure have not been immune to the pressures seen in public markets so far this year, income streams have broadly remained stable. But, of course, investors will need to be able to accept lower liquidity as the trade-off for moving into these types of asset classes.
The risks of overstretching for yield when hunting for income have been made very clear by the market volatility so far in 2020. Higher levels of income can only be achieved via higher levels of risk in some shape or form. Rather than ramping up risk to achieve a fixed yield target, income-seeking investors may be better off using a wide range of asset classes to build well-diversified portfolios that are in line with their risk appetite, and accepting the level of yield available as a result.
Dividend payout ratios
%, three-month rolling average