By Paul Brandus, MarketWatch
Back in January 2020 B.C. (Before Coronavirus), it looked like it would be a banner year for dividend investors. Payments to shareholders were expected, for the first time, to top $500 billion.
“It would take a major event to stop a record for this year,” Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices, told The Wall Street Journal as the year began.
Now, thanks to the pandemic and resulting economic collapse — U.S. GDP fell at a 5.0% rate in the second quarter and could plunge at a mind-blowing 39.5% pace according to the Atlanta Federal Reserve — companies have been chopping dividends left and right.
In the first quarter of the year, S&P said that companies in its benchmark index cut dividends by $5.5 billion. But payouts really fell off the cliff in the second quarter, plunging a whopping $42.5 billion from a year earlier.
It was the biggest decline since the first quarter of 2009 during the so-called Great Recession, according to S&P 500 Dow Jones Indices.
Depending on the length of the pandemic and its effect on the economy, this may prove to be a short-term problem for younger investors. But for seniors who count on dividends to make ends meet, it’s a far greater problem for two reasons.
First, many companies have slashed dividends to preserve cash. One of dozens of examples: In May, oil services provider Halliburton /zigman2/quotes/210488727/composite HAL +0.47% cut its quarterly payout 75% to 18 cents per share. Seniors counting on that income will have to make do with a lot less.
But for seniors who absolutely need money now, the second problem comes into play: They could always raise cash by selling shares, but the problem here is that prices have plunged: Halliburton, which began the year trading near $24 a share, currently fetches about $12. On top of that, selling stock obviously eliminates any future dividends, which could be restored during a potential market recovery.
Then there are companies that have eliminated dividends entirely. Auto maker General Motors /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +0.38% used to pay shareholders 38 cents a share each quarter. In April, that was suspended . Shares have fallen about a third this year.
“Selling stocks at an inconvenient time is adding insult to injury,” says Marguerita Cheng, CEO and co-founder of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, a Maryland investment advisory firm. “There are other ways to improve cash flow that should be considered.”
She says if you own a home, consider refinancing your mortgage, if you still have one, to lock in a lower rate. “Take advantage of this low-interest-rate environment. You could, depending on your circumstances, free up hundreds of dollars per month.”
Cheng says a reverse mortgage could also make sense, but emphasizes that like a possible refinancing, you should discuss such major moves with a trusted financial adviser.
If you don’t own a home, your options are more limited. While Cheng’s overall advice is to always take Social Security as late as you can, if you are truly stretched for cash and are eligible for benefits, then go ahead and take it now. “If you’re a couple, one of you could begin receiving benefits now, while your partner delays doing so.”
Cheng also says take a look at nonmortgage debt: auto loans, credit cards, school loans — yes, many seniors still have student debt.
“You may find that lenders are willing to extend better rates,” she says, and as always, focus on paying off debt with the highest rate first — while making minimum monthly payments elsewhere.
The pandemic may also mean that, like millions of Americans, you’re driving less. “You might be able to negotiate a lower rate for your auto insurance,” she points out.
The bottom line here: Try to increase what’s coming in while reducing what’s going out. A little bit here and a little bit there could give you the breathing room you need in a very difficult time.
Now my question of the month: If you are age 55 and up, what are YOU doing to free up cash? What moves have you made, and what advice do you have for others? Write to me at RetireBetterMarketWatch@gmail.com and I may use your advice in a future column .