U.S. Equities

Why Dividend Growth Investing Has Staying Power
Owning quality dividend growers may put compounding on your side.
Thomas Huber Portfolio Manager, Dividend Growth Fund
Key Insights
  • The unusual underperformance of dividend growth stocks during the market sell‑off last year was due to entire industries going offline and is unlikely to repeat.
  • Low interest rates and easier earnings comparisons could act as tailwinds for dividend growth stocks, although periods of volatility are likely to persist.
  • We are finding potential compounders in utilities and financials, areas where we believe the market does not appreciate companies’ long‑term growth prospects.

Last year was indeed different. Stocks with track records of consistent dividend growth underperformed the broader U.S. equity market in 2020, somewhat uncharacteristically providing less risk mitigation during the sharp sell‑off that occurred in the first quarter and then lagging during the subsequent recovery rally.

However, we do not regard this breakdown—the product of a highly atypical economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic—as a structural shift that would require us to rethink our investment strategy of buying and holding stocks that we believe can compound in value over the long haul by steadily growing their cash flow and dividends.

"...the setup for the high‑quality dividend growers strikes us as more favorable this year..."

What’s more, the setup for the high‑quality dividend growers strikes us as more favorable this year, thanks to low interest rates and the potential for last year’s excesses to unwind. An improving economy and possible inflationary pressures could also act as tailwinds. At the same time, delays to the rollout of vaccination programs and the emergence of more contagious coronavirus strains could lead to additional market volatility. We believe that the defensive qualities that dividend growers traditionally have offered may have a better chance of asserting themselves this time around.

Confident in the Long Term

A T. Rowe Price analysis shows that dividend growth stocks in the Russell 1000 Index outperformed the index by an average of 5.88 percentage points during down markets over the 35 years ended December 31, 2020. This resilience contributed meaningfully to dividend growers’ strong historical performance. Over this 35‑year period, the dividend growth stocks in the Russell 1000 posted an annualized return of 11.4%—compared with 10.9% for the broader Russell 1000.1

The nature of last year’s downturn, which stemmed from the almost complete shutdown of some industries to curb the spread of the coronavirus, explains the break in this pattern relative to past economic slowdowns. These massive economic disruptions translated into severe market dislocations, as investors first herded into business models that stood to benefit from pandemic‑driven behavioral changes and then into higher‑beta2 cyclicals that were perceived as offering significant leverage to improvements in the economy. In this momentum‑driven environment, dividend growers found themselves among the excluded middle.

Dividend growth investing is not broken. Amid the upheaval of last year, the fund’s underlying holdings still managed to post a healthy investment‑weighted median dividend growth rate in 2020.

We believe that the relative rewards of this potential resilience are best measured over full market cycles, especially if these high‑quality companies can steadily grow their cash flows and dividends over time.

Dividend Growers Have Outperformed in Down Markets

(Fig. 1) Performance in various market environments by dividend policy

Performance in various market environments by dividend policy

As of December 31, 2020.

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

Based on rolling 12‑month returns, measured monthly, from December 31, 1985, to December 31, 2020. At the start of every month, T. Rowe Price categorizes the Russell 1000 Index into various categories depending on dividend policy. We then calculate that month’s market cap‑weighted returns for each category.

We accumulate the returns during the full periods and calculate the annualized total returns for each category. Dividend growers consist of companies whose dividend growth over the prior 12 months was greater than zero. Dividend payers consist of companies whose current dividend yield is greater than zero. Non‑dividend payers consist of companies whose current dividend yield equals zero.

Sources: Data provided by Compustat (see Additional Disclosure); data analysis by T. Rowe Price.

Cause for Cautious Optimism

We see the potential for dividend growers to enjoy a more supportive market environment in 2021, thanks to low interest rates and the potential for some of last year’s excesses in U.S. equities to unwind.

Much of the market’s returns in 2020 came from an expansion in price‑to‑earnings multiples, elevating the bar of expectations for many of the high‑flying stocks that investors piled into seemingly without regard to valuation. Against this backdrop, the relatively easier year‑over‑year earnings comparisons for dividend growers and other names that lagged during last year’s runup could appeal to investors on a relative basis.

If fundamentals return to the fore and the broader market generates only moderate returns, equities offering an implied dividend yield of 2% to 3%3 and the prospect of consistent dividend growth could find themselves in favor. The likely persistence of low interest rates offered by fixed income securities could also make these potential compounders a compelling option.

"...our fund historically has exhibited a negligible negative correlation4 to rising interest rates..."

What should we make of concerns that fiscal stimulus and progress in vaccinating the population against the coronavirus could spur inflationary pressures and higher interest rates? These developments might present challenges for some equities where an above‑average yield typically has accounted for the bulk of their total returns. However, our fund historically has exhibited a negligible negative correlation4 to rising interest rates, in part because the stocks in which we invest have tended to grow their cash flows and dividends over time. We run our fund as a high dividend growth strategy, as opposed to one that focuses on stocks sporting high dividend yields.

We believe our bottom‑up approach to buying and holding quality dividend growers has resulted in a diversified portfolio, parts of which could benefit from rising interest rates and an acceleration in economic growth. That said, we make our bottom‑up investment decisions based on our ongoing assessment of an individual company’s potential to compound value over time by generating more cash flow to support a growing payout. We tend not to buy cyclical stocks purely for exposure to a near‑term economic recovery. Instead, we favor business models that we believe can grow through the economic cycle and strive to avoid those whose profit pools could be threatened by disruption.

This commitment to quality business models explains the fund’s limited exposure to energy—a sector where disruption has continued to lower the cost of producing oil and natural gas—and our reluctance to invest in airlines, cruise lines, and other businesses where we believe eliminated dividends are less likely to return anytime soon. And when we took advantage of weakness to establish or add to positions in the consumer discretionary, industrials and business services, and financials sectors last year, these moves were made with a multiyear view regarding each holding’s earnings outlook and potential tenure in the fund.

Opportunities in Potential Long‑Term Compounders

Although some segments of the market have run up sharply, we are finding opportunities in utilities, a traditionally defensive sector that has lagged during the risk‑on recovery. Not only do we appreciate high‑quality utilities for their potentially resilient cash flows and appealing dividend yields, but we also value their opportunities to grow their rate bases5 in the coming years through capital investments related to the clean‑energy transition and efforts to reduce downtime by hardening critical infrastructure against disasters. We find this combination of current dividend yield and potential growth to be a compelling proposition.

The financials sector is another area where we are finding potential compounders that trade at reasonable valuations. Although the banks that we favor would benefit from an expected increase in lending activity as the economy recovers and improved net interest margins if interest rates increase, we tend to focus on company‑specific drivers and characteristics that we believe can help to position a financial institution for an extended period of sustained growth.

We are cautiously optimistic about the near‑term outlook for U.S. equities while acknowledging that earnings are likely to be the main upside drive after a period of multiple expansion. At the same time, we recognize that elevated valuations and the potential for headline risk related to the rollout of coronavirus vaccines and the spread of resistant strains could lead to bouts of market volatility. Given the stress that the severe economic downturn put our fund holdings through last year, we generally feel comfortable with the durability of their underlying businesses and potential to compound value over the long term. As always, we would tend to view any broad‑based market dislocations as an opportunity to build our positions in high‑quality dividend growers.

1 Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

2 Beta measures the volatility, or risk, of a stock relative to the risk of the broad market. High‑beta stocks historically have exhibited greater volatility relative to the broad market.

3 Dividends are not guaranteed and are subject to change.

4 Correlation measures how one asset class, style or individual group may be related to another.

5 Rate base is the net value of a utility’s plant, property, and equipment on which it can earn a return.

Additional Disclosure

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Important Information

Call 1-800-225-5132 to request a prospectus or summary prospectus; each includes investment objectives, risks, fees, expenses, and other information you should read and consider carefully before investing.

This material is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be investment advice or a recommendation to take any particular investment action.

Dividends are not guaranteed and are subject to change. The fund’s emphasis on dividend-paying companies could result in significant investments in large‑capitalization stocks. At times, large-cap stocks may lag shares of smaller, faster-growing companies. Also, stocks that appear temporarily out of favor may remain out of favor for a long time.

The views contained herein are those of the authors as of March 2021 and are subject to change without notice; these views may differ from those of other T. Rowe Price associates.

This information is not intended to reflect a current or past recommendation concerning investments, investment strategies, or account types, advice of any kind, or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell any securities or investment services. The opinions and commentary provided do not take into account the investment objectives or financial situation of any particular investor or class of investor. Please consider your own circumstances before making an investment decision.

Information contained herein is based upon sources we consider to be reliable; we do not, however, guarantee its accuracy.

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. All investments are subject to market risk, including the possible loss of principal. Diversification cannot assure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market. All charts and tables are shown for illustrative purposes only.

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