Unexpectedly Intriguing!
April 2, 2020

Buckle up. Recounting dividends by the numbers for the U.S. stock market for March 2020 and 2020-Q1 is going to be a rough ride, so let's get straight to the dividend metadata.

  • A total of 3,869 U.S. firms declared dividends in March 2020, an increase of 187 over the 3,682 recorded in February 2020. That figure is also 445 lower than what was recorded a year ago in March 2019.
  • 24 U.S. firms announced they would pay a special (or extra) dividend to their shareholders in March 2020, a decrease of 23 from the number recorded in February 2020 and 7 lower than what was recorded a year ago in March 2019.
  • 134 U.S. firms announced they would boost cash dividend payments to shareholders in March 2020, a decrease of 163 from the 297 recorded in February 2020, and a decrease of 17 from the 151 dividend rises declared back in March 2019.
  • A total of 53 publicly traded companies cut their dividends in March 2020, an increase of 24 over the number recorded in February 2020 and also an increase of 8 over the 45 recorded in March 2019.
  • 23 U.S. firms omitted paying their dividends in March 2020, an increase of 19 over the number recorded in February 2020. That figure is also an increase of 21 over the total recorded in March 2019.

Here's what Standard and Poor's monthly data for dividend increases and decreases looks like over its available history since January 2004, which combines both a decrease in the number of dividend rises and an increase in the number of cuts:

Number of Public U.S. Firms Increasing or Decreasing Their Dividends Each Month, January 2004 - March 2020

Now that we're on the cusp of what the NBER will almost certainly declare to be a national recession because of the coronavirus pandemic, where we think they will set February 2020 as its Month 0 (the month in which the previous period of economic expansion peaked), we would suggest that a threshold of 50 dividend cuts occurring within a single month is consistent with at least some degree of economic contraction occurring within the modern national U.S. economy.

That distinction differs from the above chart's indication of recessionary conditions being present in the economy mainly in terms of scope and scale, where instead of a single industry or region being affected, the larger value indicates that multiple industries and regions are experiencing negative economic conditions.

Back on point, here is the short summary of the dividend numbers for the entire quarter of 2020-Q1:

  • 622 U.S. firms announced they would boost cash dividend payments to shareholders in 2020-Q1, an increase of 194 from the 428 recorded in 2019-Q4, and a decrease of 38 from the 660 dividend rises declared in the year ago quarter of 2019-Q1.
  • 107 U.S. firms officially declared they would cut their dividends in 2020-Q1, an increase of 40 over the number recorded in the last quarter of 2019 and also an increase of 4 over the 103 that cut dividends back in the first quarter of 2019.
  • 24 U.S. firms omitted or officially suspended paying their dividends in the first quarter of 2020, an increase of 22 over the previous quarter of 2019-Q4's total. That figure is also an increase of 10 over the number recorded in the first quarter of 2019.

We also track dividend cuts and suspensions in near real time, where our ongoing sampling helps pinpoint the timing for when the U.S. economy took a sharp turn toward economic contraction:

Cumulative Total Dividend Cuts in U.S. by Day of Quarter, 2019-Q1 vs 2020-Q1, Snapshot 2020-03-31

Here's the full list of dividend cut and suspension announcements we pulled from our near real time sampling for the entire quarter, where the total of 98 exceeds the combined number of dividend cuts and omissions reported by Standard and Poor for 2020-Q1 because we also flagged announcements of dividend cuts that haven't yet been officially declared, where the firms in question have only announced they are planning to suspend future dividend payments. Clicking the links for the company names will take you to our source for their respective announcements. Please note in the following list that several firms pay variable dividends on a monthly basis, particularly in the oil and gas industry, where these firms may appear more than once in the following listing which covers the three calendar months of 2020-Q1, which we're not differentiating because the distinction has become irrelevant in the current situation.

Having identified the firms, we can identify the economic sectors that are bearing the brunt of conditions that lead to dividend cuts. The following chart reveals the most negatively impacted industries:

Sampled Dividend Cuts in U.S. by Industrial Sector, 2020-Q1

The sector encompassing financial industry firms and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) has been the most negatively impacted by the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S. and its related economic shutdowns. Of the 38 firms in this sector announcing dividend cuts, 23 have acted since 19 March 2020 when California's governor implemented the first statewide order in the U.S. to close businesses and for residents to stay-at-home. These orders are disproportionately impacting mortgage, hotel, shopping center, and restaurant REITs, where this business structure has become popular within these industries in recent years.

The oil and gas sector is the second most-negatively affected industrial sector, with 29 cuts in total. Those cuts have come less in part because of reduced travel stemming from the business closures and stay-at-home orders, but more because of a price war that erupted between Saudi Arabia and Russia, which have both sharply increased production in bids to gain market share as demand plummeted, sending oil prices sharply downward.

The dividend cuts in the remaining industries show the breadth of affected sectors. In total, of the 97 dividend cut and suspension announcements we counted in the quarter's sampling, 45 have come since 19 March 2020.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the current economic situation is that 2020-Q1 had been on track to be a strong quarter compared to the year-ago quarter of 2019-Q1 until the coronavirus pandemic disrupted how people live and do business.

References

Standard and Poor. S&P Market Attributes Web File. [Excel Spreadsheet]. 31 March 2020.

Seeking Alpha Market Currents. Filtered for Dividends. [Online Database].

Wall Street Journal. Dividend Declarations. [Online Database when searched on the Internet Archive].

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