How To Invest

5 easy steps to pick the best dividend-growth stocks

Dividend investing is one great way to build an additional stream of passive income to supplement one’s lifestyle. If you are an income investor looking to receive a consistent stream of dividends, you want to be able identify companies that don’t just pay stable dividends, but also have the potential to increase them every year. Over the long term, this can help you achieve a double-digit yield!

So how do you pick the best dividend-growth stocks for your portfolio? Here are five steps to help you pick the best dividend-growth stocks — using Sheng Siong Group as an example to illustrate the steps.

Step 1: Business must be stable and resilient

If you invest in a company for steady dividends, you want its business model to remain resilient in the long run — even during recessions.

Since its listing on the Singapore Exchange in August 2011, Sheng Siong Group has grown to become one of Singapore’s largest retail supermarket chains with 63 stores located all across the island. The Sheng Siong brand has since become an established household name in Singapore, providing shoppers an affordable wide range of groceries ranging from live, fresh and chilled produce, seafood, meat, fruits and vegetables as well as general merchandise, toiletries, and essential household products.

During a recession, shoppers choose to shop at Sheng Siong because of its low prices and wide selection. When COVID-19 hit Singapore and lockdowns ensued, shoppers rushed to Sheng Siong to stock up on food and essential items.

In the age of e-commerce, Sheng Siong also provides online shopping and delivery for customers. At the same time, co-founder Lim Hock Leng believes that brick and mortar supermarkets are here to stay as they remain part of local lifestyles in a densely populated city like Singapore.

Pandemic or not, consumers like you and me still require our daily and monthly groceries, essentials, and household products. Thus, Sheng Siong fulfills the first step of a stable and sustainable business.

Step 2: Revenue and net profit must be predictable and growing

For a company to pay investors a steady and growing dividend, it must be able to generate predictable and growing revenue and profits year after year. Since its listing in 2011, Sheng Siong’s revenue and profit has been on a steady uptrend; a testament to its stable and growing business.

Source: Sheng Siong

On the other hand, you want to avoid companies in cyclical industries that earn uneven revenue and profit. A bad year could mean a drop or suspension in dividend.

For example, the oil and gas industry operates through cycles of shifting supply and demand, with these cycles resulting in swings in profit and losses. Early this year, McKinsey reported that the oil and gas industry is experiencing its third price collapse in 12 years — not great for investors looking for stability and a steady dividend.

Step 3: Free cash flow must be healthy

Dividends are paid with cold, hard cash (except for scrip dividends). So besides stable revenue and profits, a company must also be able to generate healthy amounts of free cash flow every year.

Free cash flow represents the cash available in the company after expenditure on physical assets such as property, plants, technology, or equipment (CAPEX) and business operating expenses.

Sheng Siong has been able to maintain healthy levels of free cash flow therefore providing the company the ability to maintain consistent dividend payments to its shareholders every year.

Source: Sheng Siong

Sheng Siong’s free cash flow was only negative in 2016 due mainly to additions to property, plant and equipment amounting to S$89.9 million. Despite this, Sheng Siong maintained its dividend that year, paying shareholders a dividend per share of 3.75 cents in 2016.

Remember that free cash flow is the cash left over after a company pays for its operating expenses and capital expenditures. Therefore, you also want to avoid companies that require high levels of capital investment to support and maintain their business operations.

The airlines industry is an example of such a capital-intensive business. Despite the economic significance of the airlines industry (all of us require air travel for work, leisure, etc.), billions of dollars — mostly funded by debt — is spent on growing and maintaining the fleet of aircraft. To support air travel operations, airlines incur high fixed and variable costs, primarily for aircraft maintenance, labour, and fuel.

Airlines that expand during an economic upcycle often experience difficulties covering their overheads and servicing their debt in economic downturns. The recent plight of Singapore Airlines and airlines around the world illustrates this case well enough.

Step 4: Track record of paying stable dividends

Sheng Siong has a track record of paying a stable dividend per share that has grown from 1.77 cents in 2011 to 6.5 cents in 2020.

Source: Sheng Siong

Besides a track record of paying a stable dividend, a company’s dividend payout ratio should also be consistent and mostly stay below 100%. A payout ratio above 100% means that a company is paying more in dividends than it earns in profits, which is unsustainable in the long run.

In the case of Sheng Siong, it maintained a ratio of 90% from 2011 to 2016, and 70% thereafter.

Source: Sheng Siong

Sheng Siong reduced its dividend payout ratio from 90% to 70% in 2017 in order to conserve its cash reserves. In Sheng Siong’s latest response to shareholder questions, the management has said that the company will continue with its practice of paying 70% of its net profit as dividends.

They explained that they prefer to have a ‘war chest on hand’ and to conserve cash, rather than borrow when the need arises. This practice reflects Sheng Siong’s prudent approach to capital management, to set aside cash reserves that it can use for future expansion and operations, and not rely on debt financing.

Despite reducing its dividend payout ratio to 70% in 2017, the company has still managed to maintain and subsequently grow its dividend per share.

Step 5:  Dividend yield must beat the risk-free rate

If you invest in a stock for dividends, its yield should be higher than the risk-free rate you can obtain in the market. Otherwise, you’re better off investing earning the risk-free rate… since it’s risk free.

In the U.S., the risk-free rate would be the interest rate of the three-month U.S. treasury bill. In Singapore, placing your money in your CPF Special Account will give you a risk-free rate of 4% (with the caveat that you can only withdraw a proportion of your CPF funds at age 55). Therefore, it only makes sense to invest in a dividend stock that can give you a yield of 4% or more.

Based on Sheng Siong’s share price of S$1.56 (as at 12 July 2021) and its 2020 dividend per share of 6.5 cents, this works out to a dividend yield of 4.1% — slighter higher than the CPF Special Account interest rate.

Keep in mind that although investors are not taxed on their dividends from Singapore-listed stocks, this may not be true for foreign stocks. For example, foreign investors in U.S. stocks are subject to a 30% withholding tax on dividends. Therefore, a U.S. stock that yields 5% will only yield 3.5% after tax which makes it a lot less attractive.

The fifth perspective

Dividend investing is a proven method of generating a stable and growing stream of passive income. Use the five steps above to screen for high-quality dividend-growth stocks which you can add to your portfolio after doing your due diligence. For an investor who uses a disciplined and systematic approach, dividend investing can help get you closer to your passive income goals. All the best!

Adam Wong

Adam Wong is the editor-in-chief of The Fifth Person and author of the national bestseller Lucky Bastard! which made the Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller's List in 2009 and Value Investing Made Easy which made the Kinokuniya Business Bestseller's List in 2013. In 2010, he appeared on U.S. national television on the morning show The Balancing Act. An avid investor himself, Adam shares his personal thoughts and opinions as he journals his investing journey online.

7 Comments

  1. Hi Adam
    What are your views on whether Sheng Siong has an economical moat and its future growth in Singapore and including expansion into China? There are many other supermarkets easily available like NTUC, Giant, Cold Storage, DDDK and many others including convenient stores. Also, our city state is only that big, how many more stores can Sheng Siong have? Not considering competition with other supermarkets, it is impossible to keep setting new stores in Singapore.

    1. Yes that’s a good point. Competition is stiff, and although they’re expanding into China, we know how domestic brands usually fare better. There might be tons of copycat brands (think how Xiaomi works) that will push Sheng Shiong out.

    2. Hi Kim Meng,

      Great question! Sheng Siong’s moat — albeit not a very wide one — is its ability to offer low prices to customers. If they can continue to do this, a certain segment of the population will always choose to shop with Sheng Siong.

      I personally think that Sheng Siong’s still has room to grow in Singapore although its growth runway here is limited. There is more room to expand in China but my take of the management (when I attended Sheng Siong’s AGM) is that they are very customer-centric and conservative. They prefer to take the slow and steady route when it comes to expanding the business, and will only open a new store if they are 100% confident that they can serve its new location well enough.

      In this sense, Sheng Siong works well as a steady dividend stock with some decent growth, but I won’t expect the company to grow that much quicker due to its industry and management style.

      1. Hi Adam

        Thanks for your reply. I prefer to invest long term and like to invest for consistent and growing cash flow. My concern on whether Sheng Siong has a moat, pricing power and decent growth is, if there are limited share price appreciation over a long period, eventually dividends gain will be eroded by inflation. I do not expect its share price to rocket, that will be unrealistic. Wilmart can go for scale but Sheng Siong is in a small market with many competitors. I may be overly concern, but I see Sheng Siong will lack pricing power if its business works on attracting customers by offering lower prices. How lower can it go? Customers can easily switch between supermarkets. Though Sheng Siong’s outlets are in our heartland which are pretty accessible, but so does many other supermarkets like NTUC, Giant and Cold Storage which are also co-located at heartland malls and transport hubs. Even DDDK expanding out of city area and opening more stores at different parts of Singapore.

        1. Yes, I pretty much agree with all your points. I think Sheng Siong can reasonably grow around 5% a year based on new store openings, inflation, and population growth. Competition will be the main challenge for Sheng Siong — mainly from discount retailers like NTUC and Giant; Cold Storage and Donki serve different segments/niches in my opinion.

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