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Do Dividend Stock Funds Belong in Your Portfolio?

A reader writes in, asking:

“What do you think of dividend funds? Do they have a place in a portfolio for a hands-off investor who is nearing retirement?”

The most important question here is what would be removed to make room for the dividend funds?

For the last several years, with interest rates stubbornly staying at low levels, some people have asserted that high-dividend stock funds can be used as a substitute for bond funds. To put it plainly, that idea is nuts.

For instance, the following chart (made via the Morningstar website) shows the performance over the last 10 years of Vanguard Dividend Growth Fund (in blue), Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (in orange), and Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (in green).

Dividend and Bond Funds

There’s no question that the two dividend funds are much riskier than the bond fund. Dividend stock funds are simply not a suitable substitute for a bond fund. Bonds can play the role of the “mostly safe” part of your portfolio. Dividend stocks cannot.

But using dividend-oriented funds as a part of your stock holdings (i.e., in order to give high-dividend stocks a greater weight in your portfolio than other stocks) is a reasonable position. It’s not a position I plan to take with my own portfolio, but I wouldn’t tell somebody else that it’s a mistake to do it with their portfolio.

Before diving into dividend-stock strategies though, it’s important to be very clear on one point: it’s total return that matters, not income. A dollar of dividends is no better than a dollar of capital appreciation — even for a retiree. (And if we’re talking about holdings in a taxable account, a dollar of dividends is worse than a dollar of capital appreciation, because you have no control over when it will be taxed.)

So, when viewed from a total-return perspective, how have dividend-stock strategies performed relative to “total market” strategies? It depends what period we look at, and it depends what we use as our measure of dividend stock performance.

For instance, a piece of Vanguard research from earlier this year found that from 1997-2016, global high dividend yielding stocks and U.S. dividend growth stocks both earned higher returns with less volatility than a global “total market” collection of stocks (primarily due to dividend stocks not being hit as hard as the market overall during the decline of tech stocks in 1999-2000).

As another example, the following chart compares the performance of Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (in blue) since its inception in 2006 to the performance of Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (in orange). Over this particular period, it was basically a tie. (The total market fund ends up with a very slightly higher value.) And you can see that the two index funds have tracked each other super closely.

Dividend and Total Market

Or as one final example (in the international category this time), the following chart compares Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund (in blue) to iShares International Dividend Select ETF (in orange) since the inception of the dividend ETF in 2007. This one is essentially a tie as well. (Again, the “total market” fund ends up very slightly ahead, and the two tracked each other fairly closely over the period.)

International Dividend vs Total Market

Every time I look into this question I come to the same conclusion: if you want to hold dividend stock funds because you see that dividend strategies outperformed total market strategies over some particular period and you think the same thing will occur over your particular investment horizon, go for it. But, as always, be sure to diversify broadly and keep costs low (i.e., don’t bet your financial future on just a few dividend stocks, and don’t pay a fund manager or advisor a pile of money to pick dividend stocks for you).

And finally and most importantly: dividend stocks are not a substitute for bonds.

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