Did the tide of falling stock dividends turn in the third quarter?

10/02/2009 7:30 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

The second quarter was terrible for dividends, Standard & Poor's reported on October 1. A record low number of companies—just 233 out of the 7,000 public companies that report dividend numbers to S&P raised their dividends.

The 233 companies raising dividends was a 49% drop from the 455 that raised their dividend in the first quarter.

The bad news on dividends didn’t stop there. S&P reported that 250 companies cut their dividends during the second quarter of 2009. That’s the highest number since the second quarter of 1957.

That’s not good news on the economy.

 Many investors, including yours truly, believe that dividends are one of the most reliable indicators of how a company’s officers and directors feel about its prospects. Companies raise dividends when they think business is picking up. They are cautious about it because no company likes to raise its dividend and then abruptly cut it. But the fact that so few companies raised dividends in the second quarter is a pretty good measure of how uncertain they felt.

Then.

This is a backward looking indicator. It tells us a lot about how companies felt about the economy in the second quarter. We won’t get full numbers on third quarter dividends until near the end of the fourth quarter. What we’d like to see—at least those of us rooting for an end to the recession—is a jump in dividend increases off this dismal level.

Looking ahead fortunately the evidence is promising. Just one company cut its dividend in September. None cut their dividend in August. I think that's a reflection of declining fear if not yet growing confidence.

If you’re an income investor a turn in dividends can’t come too soon. The total value of dividend cuts so far in 2009 is $47.4 billion. That’s well ahead of the record for cuts set in all of 2008 at $40.6 billion.

All these cuts and the rally in stock prices have combined to drive dividend yields down to just 1.8% on the S&P 500 stocks on average.

So if you’re an income investor and you think that it’s getting harder and harder to find a decent yield, you’re absolutely right.

Cold comfort that. I’d rather be wrong and have some more money in my portfolio each quarter, thank you.

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