Dividend exchange-traded funds are a great way for investors to get their income fix. After all, ETFs allow you to hold a bundle of stocks, so you’re piling diversification on top of holding big, stable blue chips.
While there are varying flavors of dividend ETFs — from international dividend payers to those that focus on growing their income streams — one of the best groups is a set of smart-beta products that trend toward so-called “quality” dividends.
The problem with many dividend ETFs — like the $13 billion iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY) — is that their underlying indices are often based on just one attribute. A fund might focus on high yield, or being a member of a particular dividend club. The problem is, by really honing in on one metric to design a portfolio, ETFs can let in some real undesirables.
For example, rural telecommunications company Frontier Communications (FTR) and its juicy 6.1% yield often makes its way into dividend ETFs that promise a high payout. The problem is that FTR has been struggling with its cash flows as consumers decide to eschew having a land-line phone. The firm has cut its dividend before, but because it is a “high-yielding” stock, it’s a holding in many dividend ETFs.
Smart-beta dividend ETFs and fund hope to circumvent these issues by betting on a total package of positive dividend attributes. They take bread ‘n’ butter indices such as the S&P 500 and apply various screens — for profitability, cash flow, dividend growth, payment histories and more — to create portfolios. That’s where the concept of “quality” dividends take hold.
And there is plenty of academic evidence that suggests that quality earnings and dividends — not merely high yields — consistently delivers better risk-adjusted returns than the overall market, especially over the longer haul.
That said, here are three of the best quality dividends ETFs for investors to consider:
Quality Dividend ETFs – FlexShares Quality Dividend ETF (QDF)
QDF Dividend Yield: 2.87%
While asset manager Northern Trust (NTRS) has made a name for itself managing money for high-net-worth individuals and families, it brings its expertise in indexing to its line-up of FlexShares ETFs.
Case in point, the FlexShares Quality Dividend ETF (QDF).
The $512 million QDF uses screens to weed out “lesser” dividend stocks from its parent index, the Northern Trust 1250. Stocks selected for the dividend ETF are chosen based on expected dividend payments and various fundamental factors including profitability, solid management and reliable cash flows. That produces a portfolio of 207 different dividend stocks that represent the cream of the crop. Top holdings Wells Fargo (WFC), Apple (AAPL) and Merck & Co. (MRK), for instance, represent one of the best-positioned banks after the financial crisis, America’s most valuable company that’s entrenched with tens of billions of cash, and pharma royalty.
Performance for QDF has been pretty good since commencing operations at the end of 2012. The fund has managed to beat the previously mentioned DVY by about 3 percentage points during that time.
Meanwhile, QDF’s expenses run at 0.38%, or $38 per every $10,000 invested.
Quality Dividend ETFs – iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL)
The iShares MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL) was one of the first “bespoke” funds, meaning it was created for a very specific institutional investor. However, since beginning created, QUAL has blossomed to hold nearly half a billion dollars in assets.
And while QUAL isn’t specifically dividend-focused, QUAL fits very much in the quality dividend ETF camp.
The fund screens for large- and mid-cap stocks in the U.S. that have high returns on equity, stable year-over-year earnings growth and operate under low financial leverage (meaning they don’t have a lot of debt). Incidentally, all of those factors are hallmarks of dividend champions. Top holdings for the fund include financially rock-solid companies including Apple and IBM (IBM).
And at only 0.15% in expenses, QUAL is just as cheap as several broad vanilla index ETF and is actually cheaper than many funds in the dividend ETFs segment focusing on “lesser” dividend payers.
Quality Dividend ETFs – Market Vectors MSCI International Quality Dividend ETF (QDXU)
QDXU Dividend Yield: 3.94%
Quality dividends don’t just stop at the edge of the U.S. border. There are plenty of international firms that exhibit the same attributes as their domestic siblings.
That’s where the Market Vectors MSCI International Quality Dividend ETF (QDXU) comes in.
Like QDF and QUAL, this dividend ETF uses screens based on index marketing firm MSCI’s (MSCI) various specifications. In fact, they are the same specifics that go into QUAL — high returns on equity, stable earnings growth and low debt. The difference that it applies these traits to international developed-market stocks.
For investors, you gain access to 301 different dividend firms and a nearly 4%.
The issue for QDXU isn’t its portfolio, but its size. Having just launched back in January, the dividend ETF only has around $6 million in assets and hardly has any trading volume of which to speak. However, I expect this to more of a marketing problem rather than a fundamental one. QDXU is a solid concept and brand-name indexing behind its holdings. I expect that over time, investors will catch on and volume/AUM will grow. This definitely is a dividend ETF to keep an eye on.
QDXU’s expenses run at 0.45%.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt was long QDF.