In volatile times, companies that have reliably increased their dividends can instead halt the increases, cut the payouts, or even eliminate their dividends entirely. Look to Canada's energy and mining sectors for current examples of the phenomenon.
That leaves a more limited list of dividend stars for investors who want to select income-oriented stocks for their registered retirement savings plans. There are, luckily, folks who examine dividend track records and suss out the remaining dividend performers.
Perhaps the most prominent is Standard & Poor's, whose index services division collaborates with the Toronto Stock Exchange to create the Canadian Dividend Aristocrats Index. The idea behind the aristocrats (which S&P has trademarked) is to identify companies with a meaningful track record of increasing payouts. The list is updated once a year – and the latest changes went into effect this week.
To be a Canadian aristocrat, a company must have increased dividends in four out of the prior five years, with no dividend reduction. That means a company can hold steady on a payout for one year and still meet the criteria. Reduce the dividend, however, and the company is more a dividend commoner than aristocrat.
The criteria for Canada are more lenient than for the two U.S. aristocrat indexes, which require either 20 or 25 years of dividend boosts and do not allow a company to take a one-year pause in the increases. It's not because Canadians don't love dividends, says David Blitzer, managing director of S&P Dow Jones Indices and chairman of the index committee. Instead, it's because natural resource companies, along with financials, dominate Canada's stock market.
"Natural resources, as we've learned in the last year and a half with oil, is inherently a volatile kind of a business," Mr. Blitzer says. "That means it's hard to find 25-year dividend payers."
With the changes this week – 16 additions and eight deletions – there are now 76 Canadian aristocrats. Investors who want broad exposure to this group can buy the iShares S&P/TSX Canadian Dividend Aristocrats Index ETF, which yields 3.8 per cent and has a management expense ratio of 0.66 per cent, according to Morningstar. The firm gives the fund, which has declined nearly 20 per cent in the past 12 months, a three-star rating.
Investors who want to pick individual stocks, however, might consider this week's additions. There's a school of thought that companies which are in the early stages of their track record of dividend growth might stand a better chance of keeping it up, or at least provide more robust dividend increases in the near term than a more mature company farther along in its dividend history.
To wit, then, here are some of the newcomers to the aristocrats.
Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Royal Bank of Canada joined most of their banking peers in the index this week. The banks' decision to hold the line on dividends in the aftermath of the global financial crisis broke a string of increases and kept them out; today, only Bank of Montreal, which resumed increases in fiscal 2012, is waiting to join the index.
Retail powerhouse Dollarama Inc. and clothing maker Gildan Activewear Inc. have built on their recent stellar track records of earnings (and share price) increases. At dividend yields of 0.5 and 1.1 per cent, respectively, they're the least generous of the newcomers to the aristocrats. (Uni-Select Inc., a distributor of auto parts, also yields 1.1 per cent.)
On the flip side, a handful of the additions have yields so high the market is suggesting they might have trouble maintaining the dividend that's made them an aristocrat in the first place. Russel Metals Inc., a Mississauga-based processor and distributor of steel and other metal products, has a dividend yield of 10 per cent. Loyalty-program operator Aimia Inc. and storage and processor Gibson Energy Inc. have yields topping 8 per cent.
The remainder of the additions, including the aforementioned banks, yield between 2.7 and 6.3 per cent. For a complete list of the changes, look here.
On a final note, it's worth mentioning that all of the eight companies deleted still pay dividends – they just aren't increasing it per S&P's rules. The most prominent stock to get the axe is Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., which kept its annual payout flat from 2013 to 2015. Solid – but not aristocratic, in S&P's eyes.