The Best Dividend ETFs to Own Now

2013 was a great year for stock investors. And despite some minor corrections in 2014, the S&P 500 has held on to the majority of those gains.

Of course, it’s taken us a long time to get here. The S&P 500 finished 2012 at 1,426, a level it first saw in 1999. To give a little perspective, Bill Clinton was still in the White House, George W. Bush was the governor of Texas, and Barack Obama was an unknown civil rights lawyer working in Chicago.

That’s a long time to go without seeing a return on your investment — particularly if you are close to retirement — and this says nothing of the ravages of inflation. Since 1999, the cost of living for an American family has risen by more than a third. Seen in this light, the new all-time highs in the market seem a lot less impressive. Far from getting wealthy, most investors have actually become substantially poorer.

In a world in which paper gains can be ephemeral, it’s good to be paid in cold, hard cash. Without regular income, the only way to monetize your investments is to sell shares of your stocks or mutual funds. That’s not a problem when the market is rising. But it should go without saying that this is a recipe for disaster when the stock market is falling — you have to sell more and more shares to make ends meet, which can whittle away your nest egg in a hurry.

For these reasons, investors have lost faith in the cult of capital gains and have gravitated instead to dividend-paying stocks and ETFs.

In many ways, the new focus on income and dividends is simply a return to the basics of investing. Historically, before federal capital gains taxes and Modern Portfolio Theory shifted the industry to a single-minded focus on growth, dividends were the primary source of investor returns, and from 2000 to 2012 dividends were the only source of investor returns.

GMO strategist James Montier performed a study several years ago that showed that from 1871 to 2009 — a period of 138 years — dividends accounted for more than 90% of the returns an investor would have enjoyed had they bought and held a portfolio of American stocks. It was only in the period from 1982 to 2000 that capital gains came to dominate.

Today, sober-minded investors have their choice of a host of dividend-focused ETFs — there are already well over a dozen that focus on the U.S. market. I’ve included the most popular in the chart below.

Though all of them claim dividends as the central piece of their investment mandate, there are significant differences between their strategies which investors need to understand.

Popular Dividend-Focused ETFs
Fund Ticker Dividend
iShares Dow Jones U.S. Select Dividend NYSE:DVY 2.98% 0.40% 13%
PowerShares Dividend Achievers NYSE:PFM 1.86% 0.58% 18%
PowerShares High Yield Dividend Achievers NYSE:PEY 3.34% 0.57% 32%
Vanguard Dividend Appreciation NYSE:VIG 1.88% 0.10% 3%
SPDR S&P Divided Aristocrats NYSE:SDY 2.21% 0.35% 44%
WisdomTree LargeCap Dividend NYSE:DLN 2.36% 0.28% 14%
WisdomTree Total Dividend NYSE:DTD 2.37% 0.28% 13%
Source: Morningstar 5/9/14

In this Special Report, I to pick through some of those differences and offer my top picks from each of the 3 main categories of dividend-focused ETFs:

(1) High dividend yield ETFs;

(2) High dividend growth rate ETFs; and

(3) Dividend-weighted ETFs.

High Dividend Yield ETFs

The first category is what most investors immediately think of when they hear “dividend investing.” The primary focus is on high current income with capital gains as a distant secondary objective. This is good, old-fashioned “widows and orphans” investing and is the most conservative of the three strategies.

The iShares Dow Jones U.S. Select Dividend ETF (NYSE:DVY) is the oldest dividend-focused ETF and is the only one to follow a pure high-yield strategy. The fund represents America’s top stocks by dividend yield, selected annually. To weed out those at risk of cutting their dividend, companies must have a positive 5-year dividend-per-share growth rate and a dividend payout ratio of no more than 60% of earnings. The stocks that qualify are then ranked by dividend yield and the top 100 are selected.

The result is a solid ETF that currently yields more than the 10-year Treasury with an expense ratio and turnover that are tolerably low.

High Dividend Growth Rate ETFs

This category is based less on dividend yield and more on the growth rate of dividends. Call it “investing for tomorrow’s yield.”

The PowerShares Dividend Achievers ETF (NYSE:PFM) and Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE:VIG) are based on rival (yet nearly identical) versions of the Mergent Dividend Achievers Index. To become eligible for inclusion in the Index, a company must have increased its annual dividend for the last 10 or more consecutive years.

The rationale for the criteria is easy to understand. Companies that pay regular (and rising) dividends send a powerful message about their financial health and stability — maintaining a dividend forces discipline on managements that are prone to wasting shareholder wealth on nonsensical mergers and “empire building.” Dividends are also honest — there can be no cooking of the books or creative accounting when the accounts have to be settled in cash.

Furthermore, consider that Dividend Achievers must have enjoyed 10 or more consecutive years of rising dividends. Stop and think for a second about how rough the past 10 years have been. Any company that was able to raise its dividend in 2008 and 2009 is a company that can survive Armageddon.

Given the similarity of the two ETFs, it is hard to see how PowerShares justifies its higher management fee. If you like the Dividend Achievers strategy, go with VIG. You’ll pay two thirds less in fees.

As a sort of hybrid between the first high-yielding category and the second high-growth strategy, PowerShares also offers the High Yield Dividend Achievers ETF (NYSE:PEY). This fund is based on the Mergent Dividend Achievers 50 Index, which holds the 50 highest-yielding stocks of the broad Mergent dividend index, on which PFM is based.

Standard & Poor’s has its own competing strategy called the Dividend Aristocrats, which goes even further than the Dividend Achievers. The S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index measures the performance of the companies within the S&P 500 that have increased their dividends every year for the last 25 or more consecutive years.

In a similar methodology to PEY, the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYSE:SDY) builds a portfolio out of the 50 highest-yielding Aristocrats.

While both PEY and SDY offer very attractive yields, their higher portfolio turnover would make them less attractive than DVY for taxable investors. You’re already being taxed twice on the dividends, so why be taxed again with capital gains distributions?

This brings me to the third category: dividend-weighted ETFs.

Dividend-Weighted ETFs

WisdomTree is a relatively new entrant into the ETF sphere, but the company has carved out a distinct niche with its use of fundamental weighting rather than traditional market-cap weighting. The problem with traditional index funds is that they tend to overweight the companies and sectors that are faddishly overvalued due to the current whims of the market — think of tech stocks in the 1990s or financials in the 2000s. By weighting an index by a fundamental value — such as earnings or dividends — you largely eliminate this bias. This was WisdomTree’s rationale for its LargeCap Dividend (NYSE:DLN) and Total Dividend (NYSE:DTD) ETFs.

Because their weightings are based on the dollar size of the dividend rather than the yield, the WisdomTree funds will tend to be biased more towards mega caps than the other ETFs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. In fact, of all of the ETFs in the chart above, I consider WisdomTree’s DLN to have the best potential for steady, low-risk capital gains in the years ahead — specifically because of its exposure to quality blue chips. The low fees and low turnover are also quite compelling.

Still, if it’s yield that you’re looking for in an investment, the WisdomTree ETFs might not be the best choice. The yields are a little smaller than those of DVY and PEY.

Picking the Right ETF

Let’s now return to our original question: How do we choose the right dividend ETF?

The answer is that it really depends on what it is you are trying to accomplish. To keep it simple, I’ll break it down like this:

For the best long-term combination of high current income and tax and fee efficiency, go with: iShares Dow Jones U.S. Select Dividend ETF (NYSE:DVY)

For the best long-term growth prospects, go with: Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSE:VIG). Though if your objective is growth, make sure that you reinvest your dividends. Compounding is the key.

For the best medium-term (3-5) year allocation, go with: WisdomTree LargeCap Dividend Fund (NYSE:DLN). Large-cap, high-quality companies represent some of the most attractive investments at current prices, and DLN is loaded with them.

With the economy still looking wobbly and many sectors of the stock market looking extended, stocks that pay consistent dividends have never looked more attractive. With this in mind, investors should consider adding a dividend-focused ETF to their portfolios.