The year 2020 was looking great just a few weeks ago. The phase-one trade pact with China was signed, stocks were hitting all-time highs, interest rates were expected to remain stable all year and global trade was expecting an immediate boost. Then the coronavirus news from China started coming on strong. Now millions of jobs are suddenly being vaporized, and businesses large and small are looking at every single effort they can take to preserve capital.
Investors have traditionally flocked to safe-haven dividend stocks in times of uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic is creating so much uncertainty that there are nearly unthinkable scenarios. Even the companies that seemed to have the safest dividends of all are being evaluated as potential dividend risks. Sadly, even some of the healthiest companies that have raised dividends for 25 years and have joined the Dividend Aristocrats have to be looking at capital allocations when it comes to dividends, buybacks and financing daily operations.
The only silver lining is that government grants via a bailout and by issuing checks directly to the public may prevent things from getting far worse. That said, the government may not take it kindly if it is propping up companies and then the companies go right back at hiking dividends for shareholders or buying back stock.
This week saw dramatic news that Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) was suspending its dividend that had risen to more than a 10% yield. Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY), Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA) both recently admitted defeat and slashed their dividends, now that oil has become such a bad business with dwindling demand and as prices went handily under $30 per barrel. Even the former safe-haven utility stocks have performed so badly in these past few trading sessions that some investors have to be wondering if they can sustain such high dividends when millions of customers are suddenly jobless and while the utilities have been committing to keep their services running even if people cannot pay.
24/7 Wall St. has been looking at myriad high-yield dividends that are in high-profile companies within the S&P 500 index. In a safe climate, these might all be too tempting not to pounce on. In this new frightening and recessionary environment, high dividends based on continued and easy coverage rates are viewed suspiciously. The good news, so we all hope, is that not all these dividends are really all that “at risk.” The bad news ahead is that the bad headlines almost certainly will become far worse in a hurry.
After screening for these high dividend yields, we have made reference to expected 2020 earnings per share (EPS) consensus estimates from Refinitiv. That said, if any investor actually trusts an “earnings estimate” at this time, they have not been paying attention to the news and are ignoring the writing on the recession wall. Again, not all these dividends are going to disappear or be cut.
Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) now has a dividend yield above 20%. Its annualized payout of $1.51 was deemed as crazy high before the coronavirus, and analysts on Wall Street were already calling for continued earnings declines in 2020 before the insta-recession arrived. Macy’s just declared a regular quarterly dividend of $0.3775 per share back on February 28. With the rapid firings and forced store closures, Macy’s is going to have to consider many other issues.
Carnival Corp. (NYSE: CCL) is still the world’s top cruise company by carriage numbers, but now its only hope of passengers for the time being is if there are not enough hospital beds in the weeks and months ahead. Now that its shares have lost more than 80% of their value, its $2.00 per share dividend screens at 16.6%, with a $12.00 share price. The company is obviously facing a loss in 2020, and it recently drew down its credit lines.
ONEOK Inc. (NYSE: OKE) announced its capital spending cuts of $500 million on March 11, and the good news for now is that after a recent $1.75 billion debt offering and an untapped $2.5 billion credit facility, plus its $600 million or so cash on hand, the company claimed that it has the financial flexibility and significant dividend coverage (and investment-grade balance sheet) to weather through the current challenging market conditions. ONEOK’s $21.25 share price is down from a high of $78.48 in the past year but is up from a low of $12.16. Its dividend payout of $3.74 per share is against consensus estimates of $3.61 EPS in 2020 and $4.11 EPS in 2021. If the company is really sincere about keeping the dividend, that’s a 17.6% yield for new investors.