What Is a Dividend ETF? An Investor’s Guide

Dividend ETFs are a popular tool for income investing. Learn more in this complete guide and third installment of etf.com's Dividend Content Series.

kent
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Research Lead
Reviewed by: etf.com Staff
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Edited by: James Rubin

Dividend ETFs provide investors with a convenient way to access a low-cost diversified portfolio of dividend-paying stocks, offering potential income and the benefits of broad market exposure. 

Learn how dividend ETFs work, including dividend payments and taxation, as well as the pros and cons of investing in dividend funds. 

What Are Dividend ETFs?

Dividend ETFs are exchange-traded funds that focus on investing in a portfolio of dividend-paying stocks. These ETFs provide investors with exposure to companies that regularly distribute a portion of their profits as dividends. Dividend ETFs target investors seeking income through regular dividend payments, along with potential capital appreciation. 

How Do Dividend ETFs Work?

Dividend ETFs work by investing in a portfolio of stocks that have a history of paying regular dividends. These ETFs aim to provide investors with a source of income through the distribution of dividends from the underlying stocks.  

Here's how dividend ETFs typically work: 

  • Passive or active management: Dividend ETFs can be either passively or actively managed. Passively managed funds aim to replicate the performance of a specific dividend-focused index, such as the S&P U.S. Dividend Growers Index or the Dow Jones U.S. Dividend 100 Index, while actively managed funds involve portfolio managers actively selecting and managing the portfolio of dividend-paying stocks. 
  • Stock selection criteria: Actively managed dividend ETFs may attempt to outperform a dividend stock index by following specific selection criteria, such as factor-based strategies. This may include focusing on companies with histories of paying consistent dividends, those that have a track record of increasing dividends over time, or companies with high dividend yields. 
  • Dividend yield: The dividend yield of an ETF is a key metric. It represents the annual dividend income as a percentage of the ETF's current share price. Dividend ETFs are often chosen by income-oriented investors seeking a reliable income stream. 
  • Diversification: Dividend ETFs seek to provide investors with diversified exposure to dividend-paying stocks across various sectors and industries. This diversification helps spread risk and can contribute to a more stable income stream. 
  • Income distribution: Dividend ETFs distribute income to investors as periodic dividends. The frequency of dividend distributions can vary, with some ETFs paying dividends quarterly, semi-annually, or annually. 
  • Expense ratios: Like other ETFs, dividend ETFs have expense ratios, which cover the fund's operating costs. Investors should consider these fees when evaluating the overall cost of holding the ETF. 
  • Reinvestment options: Investors may reinvest dividends through dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPs) or receive dividends as cash income payments. With a DRIP, instead of receiving cash, dividends are automatically used to purchase additional shares of the ETF, allowing for potential compounding over time. 

Dividend Growth vs. High Yield ETFs

Dividend growth ETFs and high dividend yield ETFs are two distinct types of exchange-traded funds that focus on different aspects of dividend investing. The primary differences lie in their investment objectives related to dividend characteristics. The choice between the two depends on an investor's goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon. Some investors may even choose to combine both types of ETFs to achieve a balanced income strategy. 

Dividend Growth ETFs

Dividend Growth ETFs prioritize companies with histories of consistently increasing their dividend payments over time. These funds are designed for investors seeking not only current income but also potential for future income growth. 

Here’s a breakdown of how dividend growth ETFs work: 

  • How they invest: These funds typically invest in companies with strong financial fundamentals, stable earnings and a commitment to returning value to shareholders through regular dividend increases. 
  • Dividend yield: While the dividend yield of dividend growth ETFs may not be as high as some other income-focused strategies, the emphasis is on sustainable and growing dividends rather than immediate high income. 
  • Investor profile: Dividend Growth ETFs are often suitable for long-term investors who prioritize a combination of income and potential capital appreciation. The focus is on building a portfolio of companies with a history of responsible capital allocation. 
  • Examples: The largest dividend growth ETFs, as measured by assets under management, are the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG) and the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL)

See a full breakdown of the largest dividend growth ETF versus the largest high dividend ETF in etf.com’s VIG vs SCHD comparison guide

High Yield ETFs

A high dividend yield ETF is an exchange-traded fund that focuses on investing in a portfolio of stocks or other income-generating securities with relatively above-average dividend yields. These ETFs aim to provide investors with a steady stream of income, making them popular among income-seeking investors. 

Here’s a breakdown of how high dividend yield ETFs work: 

  • How they invest: High Yield ETFs may include companies with higher dividend yields, often from sectors such as utilities, real estate, or telecommunications. The focus is on generating immediate income, and dividend growth history is a lesser priority. 
  • Dividend yield: High yield ETFs typically have a higher dividend yield compared to dividend growth ETFs. They emphasize maximizing income flow. 
  • Investor profile: High Yield ETFs are often suitable for income-seeking investors who prioritize steady income and may be willing to accept higher risk in exchange for higher yields. 
  • Examples: The largest high dividend yield ETFs, as measured by assets under management, are the Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (SCHD) and the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM)

Dividend ETF Payments

Investors in dividend ETFs have several options for receiving dividends, allowing them to tailor their investment strategy based on their income preferences and financial goals. Here are the different ways investors can receive dividends from dividend ETFs: 

Cash Payments

Investors can opt to receive dividend payments in cash directly deposited into their brokerage accounts. This provides investors with a stream of income that they can use for living expenses, reinvest in other investments, or allocate as needed. This can be particularly appealing for retirees or those relying on investments for living expenses. 

Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPs)

Many dividend ETFs offer a Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP), allowing investors to automatically reinvest their dividends into additional shares of the ETF. With a DRIP, investors can benefit from compounding returns, potentially increasing the number of shares they own over time. 

Timing Considerations

Investors may also consider the timing of dividend payments when deciding how to receive them. Some investors prefer regular, periodic cash flow, while others may opt for less frequent but larger cash distributions. Investors may also consider the ETFs dividend dates to plan the timing of dividend payments. 

Like individual stocks, ETFs set an ex-dividend date, a record date, and a payment date. These dates determine who receives the dividend and when the dividend gets paid. The timing of these dividend payments is on a different schedule than those of the ETF’s stock holdings and vary depending on the ETF. Investors can find an ETF’s dividend dates in the fund’s prospectus. 

Are Dividend ETFs Taxable?

Dividend ETFs are taxed based on the income generated within the fund and distributed to investors. Generally, dividends received by the ETF from its underlying holdings are classified as either qualified or non-qualified dividends. Qualified dividends are typically taxed at a lower capital gains rate, while non-qualified dividends are taxed at the investor's ordinary income tax rate.  

Investors holding dividend ETFs in taxable accounts may be subject to taxes on the dividends they receive, even if they choose to reinvest them. Additionally, the tax treatment may vary based on an investor's individual tax situation and the investment account used. For example, ETF dividends are not taxed while held in a retirement account, such as an individual retirement account (IRA) or a 401(k).  

Pros of Dividend ETFs

Dividend ETFs offer investors multiple advantages, including income generation, diversification and more stable returns compared to growth-oriented investments. 

Here are the key potential advantages of dividend ETFs: 

  • Income generation: Dividend ETFs provide investors with a consistent income stream through regular dividend payments from the underlying holdings. This can be attractive for income-focused investors, including retirees, seeking reliable cash flow. 
  • Diversification: Dividend ETFs typically hold a diversified portfolio of dividend-paying stocks or income-generating securities. This diversification helps spread risk and can enhance overall portfolio stability. 
  • Dividend growth potential: Some dividend ETFs focus on companies with a history of increasing dividends over time. This emphasis on dividend growth potential may appeal to investors looking for a combination of income and potential capital appreciation. 
  • Passive investment: Many dividend ETFs are passively managed, tracking specific dividend-focused indices. This passive approach can provide investors with broad exposure to dividend-paying stocks without the need for active stock selection. 
  • Lower volatility: Dividend-paying stocks, which often constitute the holdings of dividend ETFs, are sometimes associated with lower volatility compared to non-dividend-paying stocks. This characteristic can provide stability during market downturns. 

Cons of Dividend ETFs

While dividend ETFs offer many benefits, investors should also be aware of their potential drawbacks, such as interest rate sensitivity and sector concentration. 

Here are the key potential drawbacks of dividend ETFs: 

  • Yield limitations: Dividend funds may not provide the highest yield compared to individual high-yield securities. Investors seeking maximum current income might find other income-focused investments more suitable. 
  • Interest rate sensitivity: Dividend-paying stocks can be sensitive to interest rate movements. When interest rates rise, dividend yields may become less attractive, potentially affecting the performance of dividend ETFs. 
  • Sector concentration: Some dividend ETFs may have sector concentrations, and their performance can be influenced by the performance of those sectors. Overreliance on specific sectors may expose investors to sector-specific risks. 
  • Risk of dividend cuts: Economic downturns or financial challenges can lead companies to cut or eliminate dividends. Dividend funds are not immune to this risk, and investors may experience reduced income during challenging market conditions. 
  • Tax efficiency challenges: The tax treatment of dividends may vary, and dividends received by investors from the ETF may not always qualify for favorable tax rates. Tax efficiency can be a consideration for investors in taxable accounts. 

Are Dividend ETFs a Good Investment?

Dividend ETFs can be a good investment for certain investors, particularly those seeking income and diversification, such as retired investors. Investing in dividend funds can mitigate risk by focusing on financially healthy companies, as businesses that consistently pay dividends are generally perceived as financially stable and well-established.  

In summary, dividend ETFs offer income potential and diversification benefits but come with limitations and risks. Investors should carefully evaluate their investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance to determine whether these ETFs align with their overall financial strategy. Additionally, considering factors like tax implications and market conditions is essential in making informed investment decisions. 

Kent Thune is Research Lead for etf.com, focusing on educational content, thought leadership, content management and search engine optimization. Before joining etf.com, he wrote for numerous investment websites, including Seeking Alpha and Kiplinger. 

Kent holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and is a practicing Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with 25 years of experience managing investments, guiding clients through some of the worst economic and market environments in U.S. history. He has also served as an adjunct professor, teaching classes for The College of Charleston and Trident Technical College on the topics of retirement planning, business finance, and entrepreneurship. 

Kent founded a registered investment advisory firm in 2006 and is based in Hilton Head Island, SC, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Outside of work, Kent enjoys spending time with his family, playing guitar, and working on his philosophy book, which he plans to publish in the coming year.