Dr Shane Oliver
Chief Economist and Head of the Investment Strategy team
Assets with decent and sustainable yields are attractive in an environment of return volatility as they provide greater return certainty.
Bank term deposit rates have collapsed, so it makes sense to continue to look elsewhere for income.
Dividends tend to grow and be more stable than term deposits over time. The key for an investor is to work out what matters most: stability in the value of their investment or a higher/more stable income flow.
The renewed turmoil in global financial markets on worries about global growth has provided a reminder that we remain in an investment environment of constrained capital growth and high volatility. This has several implications for investors around interest rates and the yield investments provide. First, interest rates are likely to remain low for longer: the Bank of Japan has cut interest rates on excess bank reserves to -0.1%, the ECB is likely to ease further, the Fed is backing away from rate hikes and the RBA is more likely to cut rates than increase them. Second, it reminds us about the importance of the yield an investment provides as opposed to just relying on capital growth. Third, while a fall in the capital value of an investment is unsettling, the cash flow it provides is generally a lot more stable and becomes relatively more attractive during periods of market declines. But what do we mean by yield? Why is it so important? And where can it be found?
What is investment yield?
The yield an investment provides is basically its annual cash flow divided by the value of the investment.
For bank deposits the yield is simply the interest rate, eg bank 1 year term deposit rates in Australia are around 2.4% and so this is the cash flow they will yield in the year ahead.
For ten year Australian Government bonds, annual cash payments on the bonds (coupons) relative to the current price of the bonds provides a yield of 2.5% right now.
For residential property the yield is the annual value of rents as a percentage of the value of the property. On average in Australian capital cities it is about 4.2% for apartments and around 2.8% for houses. After allowing for costs, net rental yields are about 2 percentage points lower.
For unlisted commercial property, yields are around 6% or higher. For infrastructure investment it averages around 5%.
For a basket of Australian shares represented by the ASX 200 index, annual dividend payments are running around 5.3% of the value of the shares. Once franking credits are allowed for this pushes up to around 6.9%.
Yield and total return
The yield an investment provides forms the building block for its total return, which is essentially determined by the following.
Total return = yield + capital growth
For some investments like term deposits the yield is the only driver of return (assuming there is no default). For fixed interest investments it is the main driver – and the only driver if bond investments are held to maturity – but if the bond is sold before then there may be a capital gain or loss.
For shares, property and infrastructure, capital growth is a key component of return, but dividends or rental income form the base of the total return. Prior to the 1960s most investors focused on yield, particularly in the share market where most were long term investors who bought stocks for dividend income. This changed in the 1960s with the “cult of the equity”, as the focus shifted to capital growth. It was pushed further through the bull markets of the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly at various points in the cycle real estate investors have only worried about price gains and not rents.
Why yield matters?
In times like the present a focus on the income an investment provides is important. First, with interest rates set to remain low or fall further, bank deposit rates – already at their lowest in Australia since the 1950s – are likely to remain low or go lower. Our view is that further falls are likely as the RBA is likely to cut official interest rates to 1.75% in the next six months on the back of global uncertainties, sub-par growth and benign inflation. This in turn means an ongoing need to understand and consider alternative sources of yield on offer.
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