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Charting the Market

What’s Driving the Dividend Factor’s Strong Performance?

  • The dividend yield factor has produced double-digit positive excess returns over broad traditional beta in 2022
  • A bias toward value and quality supports dividend focused ETFs’ strong excess returns
  • With more than 90% of dividend ETFs outperforming the market in 2022, investors have poured $47 billion into these strategies
Head of SPDR Americas Research

Even with July’s rally, broad-based equities remain significantly down on the year. But the dividend yield factor has produced strong positive excess returns over broad traditional beta in both the US and international markets.1

In fact, the factor has produced positive excess returns in six of the past eight months.2 While returns are flat on absolute basis (0.45% in the US), the strong relative returns (+13%) have been a welcomed sight amid deep market losses. As a result, investors have poured $47 billion into dividend focused ETFs this year.3

In this post I will delve into what’s driving dividends’ strong, pervasive returns — and what to expect going forward in this complex market.

What Makes Dividend Yield the Strongest Source of Excess Returns?

Of the 123 funds we classify as dividend strategies, the average return in 2022 is -8.4%. This is 6 percentage points better than the return on the broad S&P Global BMI Index.4 And 96% of funds focused only on US equities have outperformed the S&P 500 Index (-12.4%), with an average return of -5.6%.5 And dividend yield is the strongest source of excess returns among all other factor strategies, outpacing minimum volatility, quality, and size exposures, as shown below.

Year-to-date Excess Returns: Average Factor ETF Return versus S&P 500 Index

average factor etf

To understand what is driving this strong performance, I grouped the 67 dividend ETFs focusing on just US equities into one portfolio (Portfolio A), equally weighted the ETFs, and rebalanced monthly.

Next, I equal weighted the top 100 stocks in that portfolio (out of 2000) to create a concentrated dividend equity exposure of the most heavily owned stocks within dividend equity ETF exposures (Portfolio B). I also rebalanced Portfolio B monthly. I then ran the performance of both portfolios versus the S&P 500 Index and parsed returns by sectors, market cap, and styles to identify the drivers.

The cumulative return series for both portfolios and the S&P 500 Index is shown below. The more concentrated dividend exposure has had the strongest performance so far this year, as it is only down -2.6%, compared to -5.7% and -13.1% for Portfolio A and the S&P 500 Index on a price return basis, respectively. These returns also came with lesser drawdowns and volatility, as the standard deviation of daily returns for Portfolio A was 18%, Portfolio B 17%, and the S&P 500 Index 24% over this time frame.

Dividend Portfolio Return Time Series versus S&P 500 Index

divident portfolio return

Is There a Sector Bias to Returns?

Drilling into the drivers of returns can help isolate if, more broadly, dividend funds are benefiting from sector biases, other style effects, or idiosyncratic stock selection. Given many of these are indexed funds, the latter would equate to how stocks enter an index (i.e., the screen).

Take a look at the return attribution of Portfolio A and Portfolio B versus the S&P 500 Index, as shown below. The Portfolio A sector and stock selection effects were equivalent. But allocation effects were a larger driver for Portfolio B. Given there are larger sector differences in Portfolio B, this is not a surprise. The largest overweight is Utilities at 11%, while the largest underweight is Tech at -16%. And there is no exposure to Real Estate.

For Portfolio A, the more expansive exposure, the sector differences are not as large – particularly on the overweight as Financials have an overweight of just 7%. Yet Portfolio A is underweight Tech by -14%.

Brinson Attribution of Dividend Portfolios versus S&P 500 Index Year-to-Date

brinson attribution

The Brinson-attribution can over simplify return drivers, however. A factor based framework can help examine attributes like style biases. As shown below, this attribution approach shows that style biases, and not sector, are driving returns.

Industry effects are still positive, but now less pronounced. Meanwhile stock selection effects are negative, illustrating how non-dividend related styles are having a more distinct impact. For both portfolios, the “dividend” factor was one of the largest contributors, followed by value, an intuitive result given the close relationship value and dividend have (excess return correlation is 81%, historically).6

Factor Attribution of Dividend Portfolios versus S&P 500 Index Year-to-Date

factor attribution

Naturally, each portfolio has a negative exposure to growth, given the positive exposure to value. This anti-growth profile has been helpful, as a result of the dour performance of growth stocks as real rates have risen. The other similarity was the positive contribution from having a bias toward firms with low earnings variability (i.e., fundamental stability). Market cap differences, even though the holdings are equal weighted, did not have a material impact.

The last part of this research would be to take the more heavily concentrated top 100 Portfolio B and make it sector neutral (Portfolio C). By making the sector weights similar to the S&P 500 Index, sector biases should be reduced. The one caveat is that within the top 100 stocks in Portfolio A, there is not any Real Estate exposure. As a result of the roughly 2% weight that should be in Real Estate being redistributed elsewhere, the sector neutrality in this example is not 100% pure.

Nevertheless, as shown below, this portfolio still had positive excess returns, with style effects as the driving force — led by the same descriptors of value, dividend yield, and low earnings variability. In fact, industry effects made up only 25% of the overall excess return in Portfolio C as compared to 50% in Portfolio B. While the sector neutral portfolio (-5.9%) underperformed the non-sector neutral portfolio (-2.6%), the still strong excess returns indicate the stylistic attributes of inexpensive, high yielding, and low fundamental volatility stocks are the main drivers of dividend strategies’ outperformance.

Factor Attribution of Sector Neutral Dividend Portfolios versus S&P 500 Index Year-to-Date

factor attribution of sector

Why Has Dividends’ Blend of High Quality and Value Been Beneficial?

The takeaway from the above analysis is that the strong performance of dividend exposures is a function of their close relationship with value stocks as well as stocks with more stable fundamentals. This is why we referred to dividend exposures as a blend of high quality value in our midyear outlook.

Why have value and high quality been in favor this year?

Broad-based valuations were elevated to start the year, but as growth prospects were revised lower and rates increased (changing the discount rate), richly valued stocks have fallen. Stocks with more inexpensive valuations have not witnessed the same level of re-rating, as their valuations were more constructive to start the year and “value” stocks’ excess returns have historically had a more positive relationship to rising rates.7

In terms of fundamental stability, there has been a preference for profitable firms. This makes sense because earnings sentiment (i.e., fundamental volatility) is waning, evidenced by downside revisions to 2022 and 2023 earnings-per-share estimates over the past few weeks.8 Dividend exposures are more likely to have firms with positive earnings-per-share, as it is highly unlikely that a majority of firms would continue to pay dividends if bottom line cash flows are negative. In fact, only 7% of the stocks within the top 100 portfolio have a negative earnings-per-share over the past 12 months, based on recent filing date, compared to 33% for the total US equity market.9

With heightened macro volatility stemming from changes in monetary policies and increased geopolitical conflict, exposures that lean defensive (remember both Portfolio A and Portfolio B had lower standard deviation of returns), with value biases (a factor having its best year since 2001 versus growth stocks),10 and earnings/fundamental stability may continue to prove beneficial in portfolios.

Read more in our 2022 Midyear Market Outlook, Finding Clarity Amid Complexity.

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