The fallout from Covid-19 put pressure on corporate dividend payments in many sectors and markets. Now, as economies recover and earnings bounce back, dividends worldwide are poised to rebound. At the same time, while widespread fiscal stimulus may push the global economy into a period of higher inflation, history shows how dividend-focused investment strategies can provide sustainable income in a reflationary environment.
At the height of pandemic-induced uncertainty in the markets last year, many companies came under economic or political pressures to cut or suspend dividends. Dividends declined by around 3 per cent across the S&P 500 Index in the US and fell further in Europe.
As a response to the pandemic, economic policymakers have cut interest rates and formulated massive fiscal stimulus programs – including a historic US$1.9 trillion recent stimulus package in the US alone, with potentially more on the way. Such a massive and coordinated policy response has increased expectations that the economy will enter a period of higher inflation.
This week’s Chart Room looks at the long-term relationship between dividends and inflation. Periods of inflation can be challenging for income-seeking investors, as inflation eats into the real purchasing power of bond coupons, which are generally fixed at a certain level. By contrast, dividends are a share of the corporate profit pool, and so when profits are rising, they can rise too. This growth means they can increase in line with, or ahead of, inflation, protecting the real purchasing power of these income streams. Since 1900, the 10-year annualised growth in dividends across the S&P 500 has outpaced CPI growth nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the time.
The market’s recent focus on themes like ‘stay at home’ and, more recently, ‘reopening and reflation’ has seen many stocks which don’t fit into these buckets falling out of favour. We think this is particularly true in defensive sectors like consumer staples, utilities and healthcare, where some high-quality companies with good dividend prospects now look undervalued. For income-focused investors, that means it’s a great time to take the long view.