High Dividend ETFs – An Equity-Income Investment Fantasy

Where’s the beef? Where’s the high income? Who are they trying to kid?

A week or two ago, while exchanging ideas at an AAII chapter meeting somewhere in the Northeast, a comparison was made between a professionally directed “Market Cycle Investment Management” (MCIM) portfolio and any of several “High Dividend Select” equity ETFs.

Many years ago, I raised the question (to no one in particular): what’s better for your financial health, 6% tax free/tax deferred or 3%? There is absolutely not one molecule of similarity between any MCIM portfolio and any Index ETF, period. You decide which is best for you.

I took a closer-than-I-normally-would-bother-to look at three different equity ETFs in the “high dividend equity” category: PFM, FDL, and VIG. They had almost everything in common, except their Morningstar rating, which varied from two-star to five-star. Interestingly, the five-star rated fund seemed to be the most speculative.

Each was constructed, or “marked-to,” the weighting of the securities in a specific index, such as the “Dividend Achievers Select Index.” These indices are comprised of mostly large capitalization US companies with a history of regular dividend increases.

The ETF owns every security in the underlying index, and it does so absolutely all of the time. There is no thought of profit taking – and no manager to do it.

Consequently, one would expect that (in addition to replicating the market value of their own index) each ETF’s performance would pretty much track that of the NYSE only, dividend paying only, Investment Grade Value Stock only, Investment Grade Value Stock Index (IGVSI).

They didn’t do either over the last five years – actually, none of these ETF securities have been in existence for more than five years and none has surpassed its pre-financial-crisis high. Still, these funds would probably “perform” better cyclically than most open-end mutual funds.

On the other hand, the similarly constructed IGVSI has surpassed its 2007 all time high, and the MCIM portfolios which use it as a “selection universe” have done far better than that.

What’s a selection universe? In the ETF case, it’s everything in an index at any price, with positions tweaked occasionally to reflect the equities held in the “real” index – without considering profit or loss. In regular mutual funds, its whatever the boss tells the manager to buy.

An MCIM portfolio manager would “select” from the total universe just those stocks that meet a set of forty-one-year-time-tested buying standards for additions to an investment portfolio. He or she would also be taking profits on issues that have met pre-defined selling targets.

That’s right, there is never any “smart cash” in an ETF.

Finally, in an MCIM portfolio, there is no need for periodic, market-value-driven, position adjustments because diversification is based on the cost-basis of portfolio holdings. Is it clear that weighted indices have little concern with diversification – and why should they?

These are not real investment portfolios. They are sector-tracking mechanisms that have been securitized as Wall Street gambling devices. The three ETFs contained 206, 100, and 142 positions, respectively, but each had roughly 50% of the market value in the top 10 holdings.

And who do you think is influencing the fund creator’s weighting judgment?

MCIM portfolios never hold even fifty equities (even at the depths of a correction) and individual positions are never allowed to exceed 5% of total portfolio cost basis. Yes, more concentrated while still being well diversified, and managed to take advantage of the different individual price cycles of all qualifying securities.

On the issue of income, where the questioner’s position was that these elite dividend producing companies consistently raise their dividends and thus are excellent income providers – the whole premise is wrong. The purpose of stock ownership is growth production in the form of capital gains – not income in the form of dividends.

Dividends are a sign of a company that is both strong financially and respectful of the investment made by shareholders – certainly a less risky class of equities. But there is a whole ‘nother family of securities (generally safer and more generous with cash flow than any equity) intended primarily for income production.

The average income of these three ETFs is roughly 2.5% – probably less than the pre-trading income of just the equity portion of the most aggressive of the three MCIM portfolio asset allocations.

Having a required 30%, 60%, or 90% cost-based asset allocation to income securities (now yielding over 6%) is having a high income portfolio without the added risk of some of the futures speculations that were included in at least one of the ETFs.

These ETFs have a basis in IGVSI quality equities, and could be excellent trading vehicles. Certainly, they can be expected to track the IGVSI and the more popular (but totally manipulated) DJIA and S & P 500 averages.

But traded they must be, or they are just another “buy ‘n hold” archaism. ETFs are actually not managed at all. The “passive management” referred to is merely the readjustment of holdings to mirror the weightings in a separate and totally unmanaged index.

MCIM “mirror” portfolios, on the other hand reflect the actual transactions that take place within a totally day-by-day, actively managed portfolio. They produce capital gains in addition to dividends and interest, and assure a steadily growing “base income” in the process.

Equity Release on Divorce – ‘A House is Not a Home?’

An increasing phenomenon in later life is the number of couples who are now deciding to divorce.

Often having lived together but had separate lives for many years, retirement then can seem the final straw in their relationship. Perhaps the knowledge of the impending hours of greater social time together once retirement arises is the most common reason!

Nevertheless, statistics show increasing numbers are deciding to end their marriages in retirement and move on, once their children have left home.

This works well for many people, but one of the major problems of divorce in retirement is dividing assets when you are approaching or have reached the end of your earning power.

Someone who was set for a comfortable retirement as part of a couple may well be struggling as a single person on half the assets. The marital home is often a bone of contention because it is usually the most valuable asset and often represents stability and security to the occupants.

However, pensions can also create many issues & this will be discussed in a separate article including pension sharing on divorce with offsetting & earmarking being the methods of distribution.

With reference to the marital home, equity release can often help in these situations.

The person who remains in the marital home can release cash from the value of the property either by a lifetime mortgage or a home reversion plan to ensure that the spouse receives their share of the property.

In most cases, it would not be possible for the person living in the marital home to take out a conventional mortgage because they may not have enough income to support it. However, by taking out a lifetime mortgage or a home reversion plan, they know they can stay in their home for life without having to make repayments during their lifetime.

‘A house is not a home’ may be easy to understand in normal circumstances but in the context of divorce, particularly from a woman’s point of view, a home is where you nurture and provide for those you love and care for and where you feel secure. Divorce is a traumatic time when normal life is disrupted. If it’s possible to maintain some security by doing a lifetime mortgage or home reversion plan to keep your home, many would take that option.

So How Can Equity Release Assist?

Well depending on the percentage split to each party, whether it is 50/50 or similar proportion, equity release could contribute either partial or in full towards the settlement.

However this would be dependent on age.

The size of the equity release would be determined by the age & in some circumstances the health of the remaining party.

For example at age 60 the maximum release could only be provided by a roll-up lifetime mortgage & the percentage currently is only 26%.

Nevertheless at age 65 a lifetime mortgage can release 31%, however a reversion scheme can also now be considered.

As age increases, so do the percentages, to the extent that at age 80 one can release a maximum of 46% on a lifetime mortgage & 56% on a reversion scheme.

In circumstances of ill health, some lenders will even increase the home reversions 56% giving a more favourable lump sum based on an impaired life facility.

Therefore, via a combination of negotiation of existing assets & the application of equity release could result in the remaining party not having to move or downsize at a distressing time. This enables stability throughout the remainder of their retirement..or until a new partner is found!

Mark Greggs is the founder of Equity Release Supermarket who were recently accredited ‘Best Financial Advisers’ at the Equity Release Awards 2008.