The Dividend Income Illusion.

So, you want to live off dividend income only. Most people who want this believe they are not touching their principal (capital) when they do this. This essentially is a version of living off the interest and leaving principal alone. But …. that’s not true … that’s not what happens when you invest in dividend paying stocks.

When a company pays a dividend, their share price goes down by the amount of the dividend (share price also adjusts for market movements that day, so it is hard to see a penny-to-penny correlation, but it is there). There is also the illusion of income versus capital that has puzzled those who know how dividends affect the stock price (meaning your capital) as just explained.

This excellent article (CanadianCouchPotato) explains both of these effects.* Dr Meir Statman refers to how people just don’t believe this illusion in this article.

Fama/French (2 well known economists in the academic arena) explain also that trying to apply this approach distorts your investing such that you become concentrated in just those companies that pay dividends … thus, you are NOT diversified with your portfolio. A broad diversification is extremely important so your portfolio has a better chance to withstand the many changing market environments you will experience during your remaining retirement years.

Dividend only? First, you are spending principal when you do this, contrary to the common illusion about how this strategy works. Second, you are increasing your portfolio’s risk through lack of a broader diversification.

So how should you take income from your retirement portfolio? Through Total Return. Money does not know how it was created, either through a gain or through interest or dividends. It spends the same. By accepting some fluctuation in principal value, you actually may provide a greater chance your portfolio can generate money longer than you live (as opposed to running out of money before life). The article series that are linked to (bottom of the article in this linked article) explain how total return and distribution research work together in retirement.


*The article in Canadian Couchpotato also refers to Dr Meir Statman, a behavioral economist, who I also refer to in other blogs. His work is quite interesting as he uncovers how we think and act in relation to money.

Note: Some confuse the term Synthetic Dividend with the term Homemade Dividend (which is the concept most closely related to Total Return, and the concepts discussed in this blog post).

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12 Responses to The Dividend Income Illusion.

  1. Joshy K March 29, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    I agree with your premise only in part. If you have a portfolio of Solid Dividend paying stocks that either consistently maintain or grow their dividends, then the fluctuations in the share price does not matter, as the investor gets paid depending on the number of shares he/she holds. For example if an investor holds 10000 shares consisting of 20 stocks ( with as much diversification as possible) and gets $20,0000 paid annually in dividends. if the stocks in the portfolio are stable or growing dividend payers, the investor can expect to receive at least $20,000 in Dividend the next year and beyond. The total portfolio market value may fluctuate from month to month or year to year.
    I have held stocks (worth about $465,000 in 25 positions in one portfolio that I manage for a relative) in 2006 that pays about $21,000 in dividends per year. I have withdrawn $20,000 every year since 2006. The market value of the portfolio is now approximately $500,000 and yielding annual dividends of about $23,000. Therefore, not only my portfolio has grown from $465,000 to $ 500,000, the dividends have also grown from about $21, 000 to $ 23, 000. Yes during this 6 plus years the market value of the portfolio have fluctuated, but the dividend pay have never decreased even one $. This has been essentially a buy and hold investment without any addition to the portfolio.

    I agree with you that while screening for stocks that pay stable or growing dividends, it would also be wise to have as much diversification as possible. Based on a six plus years performance, I believe that it is possible to reap stable or growing income from Dividend paying stocks, if you choose the stocks with some discipline.

  2. My Own Advisor March 29, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    Hi Larry, good article, to a point.

    You are assuming some investors are ONLY invested in dividend paying stocks AND in small numbers.

    If I happen to hold a portfolio of 40+ dividend paying stocks, I’m not sure this argument holds true.

    Buffett doesn’t hold this many, and he seems to be doing just fine.


  3. Larry Frank, Sr. March 29, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    Both good responses. For other reader’s education, I would point out a few things that my blog-site point of view represent:

    1) Picking your own holdings means you are actively managing your “fund” on your own, which is essentially the same as someone else actively managing a mutual fund for multiple investors by picking the fund holdings.

    2) My perspective comes from a passive management approach a.k.a.a form of indexing since academic (French/Fama mentioned in blog) and S&P research suggests that persistence (see persistence report) is a problem with active management.

    3) Persistence is important because retirees need to depend on having a source of income throughout their life in all forms of market and economic times with risks spread very broadly; rather than what seems to work for short periods of time. Research can separate timing effects and identify skill vs luck.

    (disclosure: I use DFA managed funds with clients who want portfolio management). Forum is available elsewhere, like , however tends not to include their earlier posts.

    4) Relying on just one type of income ignores the other types of income that are also possible … a Total Return approach recognizes all sources of spendable money which may become important especially in older retirement ages when they can spend some principal (and gains) because expected longevity is shorter.

    Are there other philosophical points of view? Yes. My blog in general expresses the philosophical approach of Total Return combined with passive management based on academic and peer reviewed research. This disctinction is important for those who choose NOT to manage their money on their own.

  4. Larry Frank, Sr. March 30, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    A lot of the comments I’m getting to this blog, via the Ask Larry link, are also getting the “destination” (your goal) consfused with the “fuel” (investing) for the “plan” (how you connect where you are to your goal).

    To unravel the differences between those please see this blog:

  5. Larry Frank, Sr. April 17, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    Here’s a great 45 minute video at morningstar that discusses the problem with focusing just on dividends and how total return works

  6. Larry Frank, Sr. May 2, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    Comments for this post have been deactivated.

  7. Larry Frank, Sr. February 8, 2017 at 8:50 am #

    Another post citing research done back in 1961 that still holds today about dividends versus total returns

  8. Larry Frank, Sr. March 25, 2019 at 7:29 am #

    One can restrict their stock selection universe to only those companies that pay dividends. Their portfolios would be made up of value stocks (the asset class that tends to be dividend paying companies). This selection process ignores returns (yes – capital gains also provide money to one’s portfolio) that come from other asset classes. This post isn’t saying dividends are wrong. Simply that there are other sources of money, IN ADDITION TO value stocks, that can also be spent. The mixing of all those asset classes together gives more steady returns – which provide steadier income under a total return approach because the volatility of a broader allocation with dissimilar price movements between asset classes is less than each component when properly mixed. Dividends, capital gains, interest from bonds, etc., all vary over time. But they don’t vary in unison. Having more than one type of egg in one’s basket allows more choice as to where they can get income from. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Larry Frank, Sr. March 30, 2019 at 7:17 am #

    Why are dividends so prevalent these days? What are they substituting for? Here’s a great article answering these questions and giving more insights into what that focus causes company management to do in many cases … the unexpected consequences of focusing on dividends as an investor

  10. Larry Frank, Sr. April 5, 2019 at 7:20 am #

    Another great article on what dividends really are and do …

    The Mystery Of Dividend Preference And The ‘Spend Dividends Only’ Strategy by Dirk Cotton

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