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Ten ways to boost your income in the low interest rate era

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Written by: Rob Morgan
10/10/2016
Generating a reliable, regular income stream is the goal of many investors, especially those in retirement, but with the historic low interest rates, this is far from easy. Here are 10 tips to help.

With yields from traditional sources such as government bonds increasingly slender, investors either have to accept less income when investing new capital or consider riskier alternatives.

In this environment investors need to take extra care when building an income portfolio of shares, funds or other investments. Here are some tips to help:

1) Never invest in anything just because it has a high yield

Broadly speaking, the higher the yield the higher the risk, whether it is in bond, equity or property markets. Treat a high yield as a warning sign – there could be a significant risk of the income being cut and/or capital loss.

2) Look at valuations versus history

Timing can be a significant issue when it comes to generating income. As asset prices rise, income yields fall – and vice versa. Try and turn weaker periods to your advantage and buy up your income-producing assets when they are cheaper.

3) Build a broad portfolio

Diversification is especially important in income investing. Being heavily reliant on one company, sector or asset class means your portfolio, and your income stream, is vulnerable. Use a variety of assets, ideally ones uncorrelated to one another (i.e. tending not to move up and down in tandem). A number of lower risk diversification options including cash and gilts provide minimal income presently, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. In higher risk areas there are more options available these days, for instance infrastructure funds.

4) Big isn’t always best

Large companies are often more diversified and well-resourced than smaller firms, which makes them an obvious choice for income seekers. However, they can still be vulnerable. BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal are just two examples illustrating how the mighty can fall and that size doesn’t equate to safety.

5) Check cash flow is reliable

One test of income reliability is to what extent the income paid by the asset is covered by physical cash flow. For example, if income paid is from capital, from raising debt, or from an accounting profit not backed up by actual cash, then the level of income paid could be unsustainable. This is particularly pertinent for individual shareholdings, where this assessment is referred to as “dividend cover”. If cash flow is robust and higher than the dividends paid by the company, then the yield has a better chance of being sustainable.

6) Make sure management are committed

If you are investing in individual shares it is worth keeping up to date with the company’s latest report and accounts, and other announcements, to consider any statements the management make about the dividend. Companies vary in terms of their approach, some realising that a significant number of shareholders invest with dividends in mind. Remember, though, that doggedly keeping up dividends in difficult periods could have an adverse impact on the business as if the cash could be better spent investing for the future. For fund investors it is worth understanding the approach the manager takes and whether income is the priority, or whether it is “total return” – income and capital growth. Yields on all funds are variable and not guaranteed.

7) Don’t overpay for security

Companies or assets that seem defensive may not be defensive in the next downturn – especially if they are overpriced. This is particularly relevant at present as certain high-quality, low-volatility shares exhibiting steady earnings have become fashionable among so-called ‘bond refugees’: investors looking for bond-like returns and levels of safety in the equity market. Many of these “bond proxies” could see their share prices languish in the event of a rise in interest rates.

8) Try to avoid dividend cuts

Investors in individual company shares fear cuts to a company’s dividend due to falling profits. The market often punishes such companies in terms of share price – but as mentioned above it is often better for a company to cut the dividend and rebase it at a more sustainable level in order to keep a suitable amount of cash in the business. Companies that grow their dividends are usually rewarded with a rising share price so companies with smaller but rising dividends may make better long-term investments than today’s biggest yielders.

9) Invest for the long-term

Overtrading can eat into your returns. Not only does it interrupt the flow of income but it can incur transaction costs. The objective of patiently accumulating income from carefully chosen assets also assists you in taking a longer term view than many investors, which can be a helpful discipline.

10) Know your asset

Above all invest in what you understand and are comfortable with. This way you will be better equipped to assess risk. If an investment keeps you awake at night, it probably isn’t for you.

Rob Morgan is a pensions and investments analyst at Charles Stanley Direct

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