GE’s gutted payout is the latest blow to dividend investing

It’s getting tougher for investors who depend on stocks for income.

General Electric, the aging industrial giant that used to be one of the biggest dividend payers around, said Tuesday it would slash its quarterly cash payout to 1 cent a share. The savings can be put back into the business as new Chairman and CEO Larry Culp tries to revive its ailing operations.

A dividend cut is often seen as a drastic action by a company struggling with cash flow. Big banks were forced to cut their payouts a decade ago to preserve capital so they could get through the financial crisis. GE already cut its dividend once last November.

Dividends are one of two big ways companies reward investors. But in recent years, the share buyback has overtaken the dividend as the CEO’s payout of choice, largely because it is more flexible, says S&P Dow Jones Indices’ Howard Silverblatt.

A dividend is both a promise and an expectation. “The last to go and the last to come back,” Silverblatt said, as companies forced to cut their dividends are doing so because they have few options left. A buyback, on the other hand, is a “win win” for companies and shareholders. It can be turned off and on at will, the stock usually bounces when one is announced and a big enough buyback can reduce a company’s share count, boosting EPS.

While dividend payments reached a record $115 billion in the third quarter, the dividend yield has steadily fallen to 1.8 percent from 2.15 percent two years ago as buybacks have gained favor, according to S&P.

S&P 500 companies have bought back nearly $900 billion of their own shares since the beginning of 2017, including a record $190.6 billion in the second quarter, for a yield of 2.8 percent.

Granted, the market value of the S&P 500 is up 21 percent since the beginning of 2017 through the third quarter, so dividend payouts have become less significant relative to investors’ total return.

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