What is dividend yield?

Discover how a share’s dividend yield refers to the percentage of that share’s current market price paid out in dividends annually.

A female CSL investor looking happy holds a big fan of Australian cash notes in her hand representing strong dividends being paid to her

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A share’s dividend yield simply refers to the percentage of that share’s current market price which is paid out as dividends each year. It can be a helpful metric to have in your financial toolkit when you’re on the lookout for new ASX investments.

First, a quick look at dividends

Dividends are a way for profitable companies to distribute their earnings to their shareholders. Not all companies will pay dividends — some companies may not yet be consistently profitable enough, while others may instead choose to reinvest their earnings into growing their business.

Companies that pay consistent dividends tend to be popular with ASX investors as they can generate dependable passive income streams. Mature blue-chip companies with proven track records are the most likely to pay out regular dividends to their shareholders.

What is dividend yield?

When companies do pay dividends, these form part of the total return you can expect to earn on your investment — in addition to any capital gains you might make from the appreciation in the company’s share price. Therefore, it is often important to factor a company’s dividend yield into your decision-making prior to deciding to invest.

A dividend yield is the annual dividend payments per share expressed as a percentage of that share’s current price. It is a commonly used financial ratio that can give you an idea of how much future income you can expect to earn in the form of dividends based on your current investment.

To work out a share’s dividend yield, divide the annualised dividends by the current share price. For example, if a company’s shares currently trade for $100, and its annualised dividend payments are $5, then its dividend yield is 5%. If the company’s shares instead trade for $150, and its annualised dividends are $15, then its dividend yield would be 10%. 

Either way, the formula is simple.

How does it work?

ASX-listed companies that pay dividends generally do so twice a year in the form of an interim and final dividend payment. The annualised dividend is the sum of the two most recent dividend payments. If the company pays dividends more or less frequently than that, the annualised dividends would be the sum of the prior 12 months’ worth of dividends.

Technically, a dividend yield calculated using a share’s prior dividend payments is called a ‘trailing dividend yield’ as it uses historical (or trailing) dividend information as the basis for the calculation.

Trailing dividend yields can quickly become outdated, particularly if a company has recently changed its dividend policy. To get around this problem, some market analysts will also calculate a ‘forward dividend yield’ based on their forecasts of dividend payments expected over the coming year.

It’s important to keep in mind that a share’s dividend yield is not set in stone. It can potentially change a lot over time in response to fluctuations in the share price and changes in the issuing company’s dividend policy. 

However, the dividend yield can still be a very helpful metric to use when you’re trying to work out whether a company’s shares are fairly priced and meet your income needs.

Total return

Dividends are just one component of a share’s total rate of return — the other is changes in the share price. For example, if you purchased a share worth $100 that had a dividend yield of 5% and its price increased to $110 after one year, you would gain 10% from the price appreciation, plus the 5% dividend yield, for a total annual return of 15%.

When investing long-term, it is important to balance these two return components. Companies that already pay a consistently high dividend yield are more likely to be mature, blue-chip companies, which means their share prices probably won’t unexpectedly skyrocket any time soon. 

Conversely, many junior companies may not currently be profitable enough to pay any dividends, but their share prices are probably going to be more volatile and are much more likely to shoot up quickly in response to a favourable market release.

These two different groups of companies offer very different total return profiles. The blue chips probably won’t return much in the way of capital gains but do offer more dependable passive income streams — which can be measured by their dividend yields.

Smaller growth companies will be less likely to provide reliable dividend income (and perhaps won’t have a dividend yield at all), but may instead offer better long-term price appreciation. The group of companies that is right for your portfolio will depend on your investing goals and income needs.

Benefits of the dividend yield metric

Dividend yield can be helpful when comparing companies because it’s relatively easy to calculate and understand.

It is a particularly useful metric for income investors. This group of investors — which may include retirees and others seeking to use their share portfolio as a reliable source of income — will often use dividend yield as a starting point when considering which shares to buy. These investors will prioritise shares with high dividend yields, provided the businesses are healthy and can afford to keep paying out such a high proportion of earnings.

Dividend yield can also help with share valuation. A share’s current dividend yield can be compared against its industry peers or historical average to get a sense of the relative financial health of the business. This can help you determine whether you think the company’s shares are under or overvalued at the current price. 

However, it is important to reiterate that a share’s dividend yield is just a starting point in any valuation exercises and should always be considered alongside other financial and qualitative metrics and characteristics.

What are the cons?

Using dividend yield in isolation can often lead to bad investment outcomes — and may even mean you might miss out on other great investment opportunities.

Some companies may appear to offer very high dividend yields, but that may only be because their share price has recently fallen. If a share seems to be offering a dividend yield that is too good to be true, it’s probably because it is. Check that there haven’t been any recent negative events that have caused the share price to drop or that may threaten the safety of the dividend payout.

And always put the dividend yield in the context of a share’s overall total return. If you have a longer investment time horizon and aren’t currently looking to use your portfolio as an income stream, growth companies with no dividend yield may offer you a better long-term total return. Always make sure you understand how a share will help you achieve your investing and income goals before buying it.

It’s not all about yield

Remember, it’s not all about dividend yield. There are many other things you should also take into consideration before buying a share.

We’ve included some of these things below. However, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Before buying shares in a company, you should try and gain a good understanding of any additional factors that might be relevant to that particular company’s business activities and industry.

  1. Dividend growth: Just because a company has recently paid a high dividend doesn’t mean it will continue to do so in future. Take a look at the company’s dividend history and see if it has a proven track record of increasing earnings and upping its dividend.
  2. Financial strength: Does the company have a strong balance sheet, low debt and a good credit rating? As an investor, you want to know that the company can ride out financially-difficult periods without affecting your dividend.
  3. Dividend stability: Have a look at the company’s payout ratio (or the percentage of its profits it pays out to shareholders as dividends) over time. Does the payout ratio seem sustainable? Can the company afford to continue to pay a stable dividend? Or is it eating up too much of its earnings?
  4. Competitive advantages: Does the company have an advantage over industry competitors that may help guarantee its ongoing earnings potential? Competitive advantages include things like brand recognition, proprietary technology, or cost advantages.
  5. Growth prospects: Is demand for the company’s products and services increasing, or is it shrinking? What is the potential for the broader industry in which it operates? Companies will struggle to maintain or increase dividend payments if their earnings potential decreases.
  6. Dividend traps: Some companies may appear to offer a high dividend yield, but it only looks high because the share price has recently plummeted. If the decline in the company’s share price was triggered by poor financial performance, it could also signal that the size of the company’s dividend may soon be cut. Income investors who purchased the share hoping to receive a high yield on their investment may be disappointed when their dividend payment doesn’t meet their expectations.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.