With interest rates so low for so long, I’ve fielded a number of calls from clients looking for ideas for additional income/dividends. The question is always the same: where to find it?
Depending on the client, preferred stock can be a great asset class to complement the right portfolio, but it can also be confusing to newcomers. Preferred shares don’t act quite like stocks or bonds, and they have their own unique risks and benefits. Here’s what you need to know about them and how to incorporate preferred stock into your portfolio.
However, before we get going, I have to remind you that every situation is different and that preferred stock isn’t necessarily suited to every investor. If you’re not sure about whether you should add preferreds to your portfolio, please feel free to reach out to me or seek out another experienced advisor.
First of all, what are they and who are they for?
Preferred stock occupies a special place in a company. Sitting in between debt and equity in a company’s capital structure, preferred stock has some features of both.
Preferred shares are equities that can gain value if the company does well. However, unlike other classes of equity, preferred shares do not offer voting rights.
The scheduled payments that preferred shares make to shareholders are also unique. Though they’re usually structured as qualified dividends, the amount that preferreds pay is predetermined, unlike common stock dividends. This makes preferred stock look a lot like a bond, except that it’s more common to receive dividend income than interest income on a preferred share. This can offer shareholders preferential tax treatment.
So, who uses preferred shares?
Preferreds are often appealing to income investors and are potentially more beneficial for those in higher tax brackets.
Because the majority of preferred dividends are “qualified,” your preferred stock dividends will trigger a lower tax bill than you would pay on the same income from a taxable bond. Better tax treatment is especially attractive in a low-rate environment. (As always, please note that this article doesn’t constitute tax advice. Every situation is unique, so please consult your accountant before making any tax-related decisions.)
Make sure you understand where they fit into your portfolio
This special asset class does get higher priority than common stock, but it isn’t as safe as your typical corporate bond — especially because some firms issue preferred stock precisely because they aren’t able to get cheaper financing through bond issues.
Maybe the company has already taken on too much debt or has other reasons for avoiding the bond market. It’s important to do thorough diligence on any preferred stock to quantify and mitigate these kinds of risks.
Go with a professional
Diligence is critical, and it’s more complex than you might think.
It can be tempting to research and buy preferred stock on your own, but because of the complexity and risk factors I usually advise against it. In fact, while I typically prefer Separately Managed Accounts (SMAs) for my clients, when it comes to preferred stock I think mutual funds are usually the best choice. I have a shortlist of mutual funds that I favor, and I’d advise you to also do your research when picking a mutual fund.
A major part of this is the way preferred shares are structured: typically, preferred stock is offered at either $25 par value or $1,000 par value. In my opinion it’s important to have both in your portfolio to reduce volatility, potentially improve your overall performance, and increase diversification.
Mutual funds have the liquidity and buying power to move large blocks of either one. On the other hand, with an SMA your manager might favor the retail-investor oriented $25 par value preferred stock. In that situation, you lose flexibility and could potentially hinder your performance.
Going with a mutual fund gives you more access and a better chance at making the most of the strategy.
Whatever you choose, I strongly suggest that you work with a dedicated, experienced professional to manage your preferred stock allocation. This is one area where it really helps to focus and have experience. I believe preferreds just aren’t as easy to analyze as common stock — not only because of their unique structure but because of the influence that regulatory, credit, and interest rate risks have on the asset class.
That’s why, in my opinion, it’s better to have an actively-involved portfolio management team keeping track of things rather than a single advisor. There are just so many factors involved that affect the value and stability of a given preferred stock, not to mention an entire portfolio.
Make the most of your diversification benefits
Because they aren’t perfectly correlated with either stocks or bonds, preferred shares can add a nice diversification benefit for your portfolio. But that doesn’t mean you should go wild: in my experience, you want to limit your exposure to 5% to 10% of your portfolio value.
Also, keep in mind that financial companies are strongly represented in the asset class. In fact, about 80% of companies that issue preferred stock are financial institutions. It’s a good idea to review your overall portfolio allocation to make sure that your preferred allocation doesn’t produce too much exposure to the sector with respect to your risk profile and financial goals.
While many would argue that the risks posed by these companies has decreased since the financial crisis, being over-invested in any sector can be risky.
Prepare for rising rates over time
Finally, while it might sometimes seem like interest rates are never going to rise again, I think it’s fair to say that nothing lasts forever in finance — not even low interest rates.
The good news is, historically speaking, preferred stock tends to do well when interest rates rise. Some even have floating-rate or adjustable coupon structures that keep payments in line with interest rates over time.
If the positive relationship between rising rates and preferreds holds in the future, shareholders could gain. Of course, it’s impossible to know when rates might rise again or what the effects will be, so I caution my clients not to place big bets on it. Just keep it in mind as a potential long-term plus to holding preferred shares.
Overall, preferred stock can be a great addition to your portfolio, provided it suits your overall portfolio allocation, risk tolerance, and time horizon. I definitely recommend speaking to an advisor to make sure your allocation is suitable for you and to help you find an appropriate professional to manage the strategy.
Written by Bradford Pine with Anna B. Wroblewska
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Written by Bradford Pine
Bradford Pine Wealth Group – New York City Financial Advisors
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