Here’s why your blue-chip dividends are in danger

Australian investors love their dividends.

For many of us, they provide a steady and reliable stream of income.

That is true for many retirees, particularly given the low interest rate environment.

I needn’t remind you that the cash rate is stuck at just 2% right now, so any gains they’re making from holding cash are going to be minimal.

But dividends are becoming increasingly important for younger investors and their families as well…

After all, Australian wages are growing at their slowest rate since at least the late 1990s, according to the RBA, so those semi-annual payouts are a great way to boost income.

Needless to say, dividends are something we tend to keep pretty close to our chest.

As a result, a number of investors have been concerned about some of the headlines they’ve read from the financial media recently.

The Australian Financial Review, for instance, noted that Credit Suisse expects the dividends from S&P/ASX 200 (ASX: XJO) companies will fall 7.5% this year.

That’s a significant decline – from about $79 billion in dividends in the 2015 financial year to $73 billion this year.

It’s one of the most severe downgrades to payout forecasts in the world…

But Credit Suisse isn’t alone in thinking that. According to The AFR, analysts at Citi also believe dividend payouts will fall.

A number of blue-chips are particularly vulnerable, with the major banks being among the most at risk.

Are your blue-chip dividends in danger?

Investors have long turned to the blue-chips as a reliable source of dividends.

They’ve typically been rewarded as a result, but that could be about to change…

When the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (ASX: CBA) reported its interim earnings last month, it declared a dividend of $1.98 per share – the same as in the prior corresponding period.

It was the first time the bank left its dividend for the December half unchanged since the Global Financial Crisis…

The payout ratio of 70.8% was also at the low end of the bank’s target (70% to 80%). The group’s CEO Ian Narev said he expects that to be maintained moving forward, but many investors are beginning to doubt that assumption.

You see, the country’s major banks are being forced to hold more capital in reserve as a safeguard against a potential economic downturn.

Cutting back on distributions to shareholders could certainly help them towards that goal…

At the same time, funding costs are growing and bad debts are expected to rise soon, which some believe could force the banks to lower their payout ratios to around 50%.

That could see the dividend yields of ANZ Bank (ASX: ANZ), National Australia Bank Ltd. (ASX: NAB) and Westpac Banking Corp (ASX: WBC) slashed as well, taking their share prices down with them.

But the banks aren’t the only blue chips in the firing line right now…

To begin with, BHP Billiton Limited (ASX: BHP) and Rio Tinto Limited (ASX: RIO) were both forced to scrap their so-called “progressive dividend” policies in the fallout of the mining boom.

In fact, BHP cut its own fully franked dividend by almost 75% last month, which was even more than the market had been anticipating…

As if investors in the commodity sector needed any more bad news, The AFR noted that dividend forecasts within the commodity sector as a whole have been downgraded by 30% to 40%…


Outside of the banks and miners, Woolworths Limited (ASX: WOW) cut its own fully franked dividend yield as well.

The retail giant’s earnings are taking heavy fire as a result of its failed Mastershome improvement chain, while it’s also fighting a losing battle against the likes of Coles and Aldi in Australia’s multi-billion-dollar grocery channel.

Widen your search…

Some investors have done extraordinarily well by investing in blue-chip shares.

Over the decades, many have paid their shareholders huge dividends and generated enormous capital gains as well.

But there is no guarantee that trend will continue in the future.

That’s one of the reasons you won’t find any of the banks or miners on the official Motley Fool Dividend Investor scorecard…

The headwinds facing these groups of businesses could not only impact the companies’ share prices, but also hinder their ability to grow dividends…

Given their heavy weighting on the market, it’s also no wonder why some analysts expect ASX 200 dividends to fall so heavily this year.

But outside of the blue chips, there are still plenty of companies offering great dividends.

In fact, in a recent post titled “The Lucky Country holding up pretty well“, AMP Capital’s chief economist Shane Oliver noted that 62% of companies raised their dividends during the latest reporting period.

As far as positive dividend surprises go, Transurban Group (ASX: TCL) and Sydney Airport Holdings Ltd (ASX: SYD) were amongst the best…

But they had nothing on Blackmores Limited (ASX: BKL) which nearly tripled its interim dividend compared to the year before.

Foolish Takeaway

Interest rates are currently sitting at just 2%, with some experts forecasting up to two cuts before the end of 2016.

That means that returns from any cash in the bank are likely to fall even further, while high yielding, dividend paying shares are set to become even more attractive than they are today.

But with the typical blue-chip shares facing some meaningful risks, it may be necessary to broaden your search and look farther afield.

Fortunately, for those prepared to move beyond the top 100 ASX companies, there are plenty of quality, low risk companies that continue to offer great value and attractive yields.

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