For dividend growth-focused investors, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic-triggered shutdown threw a monkey wrench into dividend income expectations.
In response to the shutdown, companies stopped increasing dividends, cut dividend rates, or suspended dividends entirely. Four years after the shutdown, it’s time to see how dividend policies have changed…
And where the next big dividend growth opportunities are to be found.
At the pandemic’s start, companies suddenly faced a very uncertain future. Making changes to dividend policies was appropriate, depending on the individual company and industry. However, we are now four years past the pandemic’s start, and many companies have not resumed their pre-covid dividend policies. This is a trend that does not benefit investors.
There were some good reasons for, and results from, the reigning in of dividend growth. Companies have used excess cash flow to reduce debt loads. Cash flow growth increases coverage of the current dividend rates.
Companies have also focused more on buying back shares rather than increasing the cash dividends paid to investors. A stock buyback lowers the number of shares outstanding, which mathematically increases the net earnings per share. I am not a fan of buybacks that are not paired with dividend increases.
Here are several stocks that changed their dividend policies due to the pandemic and have not yet returned to their pre-COVID practices.
Before the pandemic, EPR Properties (EPR) was an outstanding income REIT. The company paid monthly dividends, increased its dividend by 7% per year, and typically yielded near 7%. EPR owns movie theaters and other experiential properties, so it was not a surprise the company suspended dividend payments in May 2020. The dividend restarted in June 2021 at 70% of its pre-pandemic rate. My biggest issue with EPR is that the company has not returned to annual dividend increases. This month, it announced another $0.275 dividend. The rate has not changed since October 2021.
Pre-pandemic energy infrastructure company ONEOK Inc. (OKE) had a dividend policy of quarterly increases totaling high single-digit annual growth. At the start of the pandemic, ONEOK stopped increasing its dividend and did not increase its payout again until January 2023. Last week, the company announced a 3% increase and stated that 3% is the target dividend growth rate going forward. The company wants to put greater emphasis on stock buybacks. A 5.5% yield combined with 3% dividend growth is not an appealing combination. I will soon look to replace ONEOKE in my Dividend Hunter-recommended portfolio.
Plains All American Pipelines LP (PAA) has done much better for investors coming out of the pandemic. Plains cut its quarterly dividend by 50% at the start of the pandemic. It restarted dividend growth in 2022 with a 21% boost to the payout. The dividend increased again in 2023, by 23%. This year, the PAA dividend got a 19% increase. The company has stated that it will continue double-digit dividend growth for at least several years.
In general, I am disappointed with how many companies have treated investors regarding dividends paid since the pandemic. Many seem to have forgotten their histories of rewarding investors with growing dividend payouts. As we get deeper into 2024, I will be looking for more companies like Plains All American Pipelines.