22 January 2018

Rising Rates Add to the Allure of Bank Stocks

The Globe and Mail, David Berman, 22 January 2018

Canadian big bank stocks have continued to rise since the Bank of Canada raised its key interest rate on Wednesday, highlighting a nice safety feature for dividend-loving investors: Bank stocks can actually benefit from rising rates.

This is becoming an important feature in today's market, when some dividend stocks are struggling.

As rates rise, bond yields are also moving higher. The yield on the 10-year Government of Canada bond is now above 2.2 per cent, moving toward a four-year high and up from about 1.8 per cent just one month ago.

Rising bond yields offer competition to dividends and are dragging on stock valuations in some rate-sensitive sectors. Utilities, real estate investment trusts and telecom stocks have been looking particularly vulnerable over the past six weeks: BCE Inc. is down more than 7 per cent, RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust is down about 5 per cent and Fortis Inc. is down 9 per cent.

But Canada's big banks have been immune to this trend. The sector hit record highs on Monday, and is up 3.7 per cent over the past six weeks, suggesting that investors believe these dividend-paying stocks remain compelling investments when interest rates are rising.

The reason? Higher rates tend to coincide with a stronger economy, which means more bank loans, low loan losses and increased capital markets activity – all of which drive bank profits and feed into dividend increases. Higher rates can also drive fatter margins on loans, providing a tailwind to the banks' lending activities.

In other words, if bank stocks were attractive dividend gushers when interest rates were very low, they look even better as rates start to rise – as long as these increases don't raise alarms about the ability of consumers to service their debts.

So if the big banks look like ideal dividend stocks in the current interest rate environment, which particular bank stocks should investors consider?

It's worth repeating that one compelling strategy for choosing the best overall bank stock is to simply buy last year's underperformer: Canada's biggest banks have an uncanny ability to narrow the performance gap very quickly, turning laggards into outperformers. Given that Bank of Montreal lagged in 2017, it stands a good chance of leading in 2018.

But whatever your stock-picking strategy, bank dividends are hard to ignore, especially when so many other dividend-paying stocks are struggling.

Based on straight-up dividend yield, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce stands well above its Big Six peers with a yield of nearly 4.3 per cent. The average yield for the other five banks is about 3.6 per cent.

However, dividend increases are another important consideration. All of the big banks have been hiking their quarterly payouts at a brisk pace, but the increases have varied by bank.

In 2017, Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank led the way by hiking their respective dividends by 9 per cent each. CIBC trailed with an increase of 6 per cent.

The longer track record reveals a similar trend. According to data from RBC Dominion Securities, RBC hiked its dividend by an average of 11 per cent per year between 2000 and 2017, for a total increase of 574 per cent. CIBC trailed the frontrunner with a total increase of 333 per cent over this 18-year period.

The takeaway: Buying a bank stock with the biggest dividend yield today might not give you the best payout over time if other banks are raising their dividends more aggressively. Indeed, though RBC trails most of its peers with a current dividend yield of 3.4 per cent, history suggests it is the dividend king over time.

And what does the immediate future look like? One way to predict near-term bank generosity is to look at their payout ratios, which compare dividend payouts with profits.

In recent years, the big banks have tended to pay out, on average, 45 per cent of their profits in the form of dividends (again, according to a report from RBC Dominion Securities). In 2017, RBC, CIBC and Bank of Nova Scotia had above-average payout ratios of 46 per cent each, while TD had a payout ratio of just 42 per cent.

The lower payout ratio suggests TD might have more room to raise its dividend than other banks. But investors can expect hikes from all the banks, ensuring that the sector will continue to be a dividend powerhouse.