Dividend Smackdown: REITs vs. Utilities


This year has proven to be a rough one for dividend stocks. With the Fed’s rate hike looming and with bond yields rocketing higher, traditionally high-yielding sectors like REITs and utilities have taken an absolute pounding. The REIT sector, as represented by the Vanguard REIT ETF (VNQ), is down more than 13% from its January highs and is well into negative territory for the year. Many REITs are down more than 20%, putting them into outright bear market territory.

Utilities have actually fared a little worse. The Utilities Select SPDR ETF (XLU) is down close to 14% from its January highs. And as with REITs, many individual utility stocks are down significantly more.

After a good correction, it’s always worthwhile to look for bargains. So today, we’re going to pit REITs against utilities to see which is the better dividend play for the remainder of 2015. We’ll judge the winner of this smackdown on three criteria: Current dividend yield, dividend growth, and overall macro backdrop.

Dividend Yield

It can get a little messy when comparing yields across sectors because most investors do not simply buy the index. They cherry pick the individual stocks they like best, which can have yields that are markedly different from the average for the sector. So, we’ll look at both the index averages and at some individual names that investors are likely to own.

At current prices, VNQ yields 3.8%, beating out XLU’s 3.5%. But it’s only fair to note that both sectors out-yield Treasuries by a decent margin. As of this writing, the 10-year Treasury yielded a pitiful 3.3%.

Let’s take a look at the portfolios of each. VNQ’s largest holding by a wide margin is Simon Properties Group (SPG), which makes up more than 8% of the portfolio. Public Storage (PSA) and Equity Residential (EQR) round out the top three at 4.1% and 3.8% of the portfolio, respectively. None of these three are particularly high yielders, with current dividend yields of 3.4%, 3.6% and 3.1%, respectively.

In my view, Realty Income (O), LTC Properties (LTC) and Ventas (VTR) are better options as buy-and-hold dividend stocks. At current prices, they yield 5.0%, 4.9% and 4.9% respectively, and all have long track records of raising their dividends.

Now let’s dig into XLU’s holdings. Duke Energy (DUK), NextEra Energy (NEE) and Dominion Resources (D) dominate the portfolio. Of these, Duke is the highest yielder with a 4.4% dividend. NextEra and Dominion yield a less impressive but still competitive 3.1% and 3.9%, respectively. But for a higher yield, you might consider Southern Company (SO), with its 5.1% yield, or Gas Natural (EGAS), with its 5.4% yield.

Dividend Yield: Advantage REITs


Dividend Growth

Comparing dividend growth between ETFs can be a little messy. You have to remember what an ETF is: It’s a collection of companies, each with its own dividend payment schedule. To smooth this out, I took an average of the dividends paid over the trailing four quarters and compared to the average from the prior year. And here’s what I found.

Dividend growth in the utilities sector has been pretty modest. Over the trailing four quarters, XLU’s payout grew by 3.5%.  And going back to 2011, year-over-year growth has ranged from a little less than 0% to a little less than 8%. That’s more than enough to keep pace with inflation, but not enough to really excite me.

Now, let’s look at REITs. VNQ’s dividend rose by nearly 10% over the trailing four quarters, and going back to 2011 its average growth has been about 11%.

Utilities have seen decent enough dividend growth, and a utility stock is still a better option than a bond in my view. But REITs have clearly beaten the pants off of utilities in terms of dividend growth, and I expect that to continue going forward.

Dividend Growth: Advantage REITs


Macro Conditions

This brings me to the final criterion, the overall macro environment. With the deregulation of recent decades, utilities are not quite as hamstrung as they used to be and often have more flexibility to pass on rising energy costs to consumers. But this remains a regulated industry, and that ability is by no means absolute. Utilities, uniquely among industrial sectors, are still subject to political whims.

And making it worse is the growing popularity of self sufficiency via solar energy. The falling cost of solar panels is an absolute disaster for the utilities industry. Not only does it remove would-be paying customers, but it also forces the utilities to buy relatively expensive excess productions from households with solar panels, all while guaranteeing capacity during peak hours or during periodic shortages of solar energy. All in all, utilities are operating in a difficult environment that only promises to get more difficult.

REITs have none of these issues, and the macro environment actually looks good for REITs. Rising bond yields raise borrowing costs, but a growing economy should translate to higher property prices and higher rents.

Macro Conditions: Advantage REITs

In this dividend stock smackdown, REITs are the hand-down winner. They beat utilities in terms of both current yield and dividend growth, and they face none of the complicated macro issues that utilities face.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management and the author of the Sizemore Insights blog. As of this writing, he was long VNQ, O, LTC, VTR.

Photo credit: Alex Eylar