A YTD History Of S&P 500 Dividend Increases, Cuts, And Suspensions

Back in mid-February 2020, S&P 500 issues were easily on track to set their ninth annual record for dividend cash payments, as forecasts called for double-digit 2020 returns. By month-end February, 113 issues in the S&P 500, 22% of the index, had increased their dividends, with no cuts (and certainly no suspensions), and Q1 2020 went on to return a record USD 127 billion of cash payments to holders.

All was good until the word “corona” turned from a beer order into a virus. By the end of June, four months later, the index posted 49 additional increases (with lower increases; the Q2 2020 average increase was 7.50% versus Q1 2020s 9.01% and Q2 2019’s 11.03%), along with 62 decreases, with 41 of the 62 being suspensions (the last suspension was in 2017 by PG&E). Still, the Q2 2020 payments held up, as companies fulfilled their prior declarations, returning USD 119 billion to holders. The amount was higher on a year-over-year basis (0.3% over Q2 2019), but 6.2% lower than the record Q1 2020 payment. Because of the record Q1 2020 payment, the payment for the first half of 2020 was 5.1% higher on a year-over-year basis.

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However, the announcements of Q2 2020 payments that started in March paint a different picture of the second half of 2020. The first half produced USD 14.9 billion in announced increases and USD 42.5 billion in cuts, resulting in a USD 27.6 billion reduction in dividends, with the immediate result of lower declared payments for Q3 and Q4 2020.

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If one thinks of dividends as a paycheck, a 25-year wage growth, compounded using actual cash payments, amounts to 6.4% annualized. The annualized growth from the full recovery from the financial downturn to YTD was higher, at 7.6%. From February 2020, when dividend rates reached an all-time high, to now, the drop was equivalent to taking a 6.8% pay cut.

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At the moment, the 2020 estimate for payments from S&P 500 issues has improved to a 2% decline in the actual 2020 payment over 2019, compared with May’s decline estimate of a 3%-4% decline. The last down dividend year for the index was in 2009 (-21.07%).

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