Portfolio yields are under pressure due to the worldwide flight to safety over the last few years, making conservative and income growth portfolios more difficult to manage. While bond investments made a few years ago have done historically well, new investments have greater principal risk with low historic yields. Some advisors have simply shifted from bonds into stocks, but for those truly in conservative and income growth risk classes, adding equities will increase the portfolio’s standard deviation, a common measure of risk, reducing the portfolio’s ability to soften the “blow” from the next crisis or even modern day volatility.

Investors should never chase yield, meaning simply buying the highest yielding product with no concern about who is paying the interest. No company pays a high yield on its bond simply because they just want to be nice. Yield is based on the risk of getting your money back. A US Treasury Bond pays a lower yield because chances of getting paid back are nearly 100%. If you lent money to General Motors several years prior to bankruptcy, you got a very high yield, but then lost your entire principal after the government takeover. Lending money to Coke would fall in between the US government and GM. Coke is not as secure as Uncle Sam, but the risk of Coke going out of business in the near term is not realistic either.

A way to increase portfolio yield and not increase overall risk is to reallocate a portion of your equity holdings into dividend-paying domestic and international index funds and preferred stock.

Every conservative or income growth portfolio has some exposure to equities. A sample income growth model is listed in the table below. The portfolio is made up of 30% equities, 60% bonds, 3% commodities and 10% cash. The current 12-month yield is 2.7%, with a 5-year 5.78% annualized rate of return through December 31, 2010. The 5-year standard deviation is 9.6. The portfolio is made up entirely of index funds. Over the same time period, the S&P 500 had a standard deviation of 18 and a return of 2.29%.


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Below, I explore the options in using exchange-traded funds to supplement the equity allocation in the above portfolio.

Domestic Divident ETFs

Simply adding exchange-traded funds (ETFs), like Vanguard’s Dividend Appreciation Index (VIG), to a portfolio can increase a portfolio’s yield. VIG holds over 140 large cap companies that have increased their dividends consecutively over the last 10 years. The fund yields 2%; this is 10% higher than the S&P 500. According to Morningstar, VIG is allocated with 50% giant, 35% large, 12% mid and 2% small cap domestic exposure. VIG’s expense ratio is 23 bps. This fund has $4.6 billion in assets under management. As of 12/31/10, VIG had a 3-year rate of return of .2% with a standard deviation of 18.69.

State Street’s SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY) tracks the S&P Dividend Aristocrats Index, which holds 60 S&P 1500 companies that have increased their dividends every year for the last 25 years. The companies must have a market cap of at least $3 billion and an average trading volume of $5 million for at least six months. The fund currently yields 3.35%. Morningstar breaks down this Large Cap Value ETF with 17% giant, 34% large, 39% mid and 9% small cap companies. The expense ratio is 35 bps. This fund has $5.2 billion in assets under management. As of 12/31/10, SDY had a 5-year rate of return of 3.31% and a 5-year standard deviation of 18.63.

The iShares Dow Jones Dividend ETF (DVY) currently yields 3.42%. This ETF tracks the Dow Jones Global Select Dividend Index. The methodology behind this index is to track the top 100 yielding stocks in the Dow Jones US index, excluding REITs. Morningstar divides this ETF as 11% giant, 37% large, 35% mid and 15% small cap stocks. The ETF has $6 billion in assets under management with an expense ratio of 40 bps. As of 12/31/10, DVY had a 5-year rate of return of -.2% with a standard deviation of 19.02.

Many advisors would consider VIG, SDY and DVY to be the same. However, just a quick study of their underlying index methodology tells a different story. VIG could be used as a core asset allocation strategy to replace value/growth neutral holdings. It should also be noted that this ETF holds only 6% financials.

SDY can be used in portfolios where growth and value holdings are strategically allocated. Traditional large and mid cap holdings could be reduced and SDY used to supplement portfolio yield with equity dividends.

DVY is more tilted towards value compared to SDY and carries more small cap equities. 70% of holdings are in the US manufacturing sector. This ETF could be used as an alternative to SDY, but it is still not an apple-to-apple comparison.

In part two, we’ll look at ways to increase portfolio yield with preferred stock and international dividend ETFs.


– Casey Smith is the President of Wiser Wealth Management