Strong pound hurt dividend payouts
Dividend payouts to investors jumped by more than 20% last year to a record £97.4 billion, according to the latest UK Dividend Monitor from Capita Asset Services.
However, that figure was boosted by a huge special dividend from telecoms giant Vodafone. Stripping out one-off payouts, regular dividends totalled £79.1 billion, up a mere 1.4%. This is the weakest dividend growth since 2010 and a fall in real terms (after adjusting for inflation).
What are dividends?
Many listed firms pay their shareholders dividends. These are cash payments which are made on a quarterly or half-year basis.
It's important to remember that no dividend is set in stone; no matter what the firm has said in the past, its directors can lower or even cancel future dividends if they feel the need to. For example, Tesco got a lot of attention last year when it slashed its dividend.
Why a stronger pound hurt
Of course, any rise in dividends is better than none, but UK dividends were knocked by the strength of the British pound. Sterling rose against the US dollar in the first half of 2014, but as 40% of UK dividends are paid by companies reporting in dollars, the pound's climb shrunk the size of those dividends.
Without the early drag of the strong pound, underlying full-year dividends would have been £2.5 billion higher, growing by a more respectable 4.6%.
Mid-caps beat blue chips
Dividend growth at large-cap listed companies disappointed in 2014, with underlying payouts from FTSE 100 members up just 0.7% on 2013 to reach £70 billion.
Dividend growth at mid-cap firms was more than 10 times as strong, with FTSE 250 firms growing their cash payouts by an impressive 8%.
Why dividends are set to soar
The good news is that, with the dollar soaring to $1.50 to the pound over the past six months, weaker sterling should help to boost dollar dividends throughout 2015.
Capita expects core dividends to grow by a tasty 7% in 2015. As a result, UK shareholders can look forward to banking plenty of extra cash this year.
Shares are still good value
With bond prices at record highs and bond yields at all-time lows (just 1.6% from 10-year UK Government bonds), shares look far more attractive than bonds nowadays.
Investors should brace themselves for further price volatility in 2015. With the oil price down more than 50% from its June 2014 peak of $115, profits from oil and gas producers are set to be smashed in 2015. Likewise, a fierce price war among supermarkets could lead to lower margins, profits and cash flow for Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons.
On the other hand, with inflation slumping due to falling food and oil prices, plus wage growth starting to take off, most people should be better off this year. As a result, spending should rise, lifting profits for the likes of airlines, travel companies and retailers.
There's plenty of scope for further gains in share prices during 2015.
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