ETFs Made Easy: Dividend ETF Investing

There are plenty of reasons investors like dividend-paying stocks, but each fund has to be considered on its own merits.

Reviewed by: Dave Nadig
Edited by: Dave Nadig


There are plenty of reasons investors like dividend-paying stocks.

At the core of it is simple history: while prices go up and down, there are stocks out there that pay a certain amount in dividends, year after year, often oblivious to whether the FTSE All Share Index is up or down. There’s a certain solace in knowing that even if your portfolio is down 5 percent, you’ll still get a dividend cheque.

That perceived stability is one reason many investors in retirement look to dividend stocks as a source of disposable income. And, in fact, there is academic research backing up the idea that over the long term, dividends may be the most important part of your equity returns.

But when wading into the world of ETFs with the word “dividend” somewhere in their names, things can get a bit confusing.

How Does It Pay?

First, let’s talk about how dividends end up in your pocket if you’re an ETF investor. Imagine you hold an ETF with 100 large-cap stocks in it. Over the course of the year, most of those stocks will likely be paying out dividends, which the ETF manager will collect.

Those dividends come in all the time, on different days, and that ETF manager will generally put that cash to work as it comes in, buying up more stock with those dividend proceeds. The issuers will keep track of the amount of dividends they’ve received, and every so often, they’ll send a distribution out to shareholders of the ETF.

Different funds will send out those distributions at different frequencies. The iShares UK Dividend UCITS ETF (IUKD) distributes accumulated dividends semi-annually. The SPDR S&P Global Dividend Aristocrats UCITS ETF (GLDV) does so quarterly. Other firms do it weekly, monthly, or even once a year.

But perhaps more important than how frequent the dividends are, is getting a sense of how big they’ll be. And here’s where things can get confusing.

Useful Metrics

Take IUKD’s factsheet and look at “Distribution Yield.” That’s a backward-looking measure of the last year’s worth of all distributions—dividends, capital gains, income—calculated with its current price.

IUKD shows 4.34 percent there. It’s a useful statistic to understand how much you’ll need to worry from a tax perspective.

But what most people care about is what they can expect next quarter.

You can also see a category called “Dividend Yield.” For the SPDR S&P UK Dividend Aristocrats UCITS ETF (UKDV), it’s 3.92 percent. That number is looking at the weighted average of the annual yield from the most recent dividend payments of all the individual stocks inside the portfolio.

It’s not a crystal ball—companies can and do change their dividends over time. But it’s a pretty clear rear-view mirror that should give you a good sense of what to expect.

Know The Strategy

It’s tempting to just look at the highest-yielding fund in the segment and say: “That’s the one for me.” But it’s important to recognise that different dividend strategies have very different goals.

IUKD, for its part, is deliberately selecting a small, 50-stock portfolio of just high-yielding stocks from the FTSE 350 Index. It’s not trying to represent the total market, and it includes a big slug in financials – around 40 percent of the index. Whereas UKDV tracks the 30-stock S&P Europe Broad Market Index, with a heavy focus on consumer staple and industrial stocks that have raised or maintained their dividends for the past 10 years.

The fact is that every ETF in the dividend segment will have a very different approach to using dividends to select and weight the portfolio.

Do Your Homework

So while the idea of dividend investing seems easy, it requires a really hard look at the competing funds to decide which one is right for you—more so than in many other segments.

In other words, you absolutely cannot just look for the word “dividend” in a fund description and stop there. Dividend investing can make a lot of sense, but you can’t just take it at face value.

At the time this article was written, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. You can reach Dave Nadig at [email protected], or on Twitter @DaveNadig

Prior to becoming chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends, Dave Nadig was managing director of Previously, he was director of ETFs at FactSet Research Systems. Before that, as managing director at BGI, Nadig helped design some of the first ETFs. As co-founder of Cerulli Associates, he conducted some of the earliest research on fee-only financial advisors and the rise of indexing.