Total Return Is Most Important
Many income-seeking investors are drawn to CEFs because of their relatively high distribution rates.
Because CEFs have closed-end structures, their capital is relatively stable. This allows them to invest in riskier assets, which typically pay relatively high yields, and to use leverage, which can boost the portfolio's income on a NAV basis.
The average CEF has a distribution rate of more than 6% of net asset value (NAV).
However, we caution income-seeking investors not to get myopic when it comes to their CEF investments. For long-term investors, a CEF's total return is far more important than its distribution rate. This is true not only for CEFs but for all investments.
Total Return (Share Price) = Share price return + Distribution Rate
There are two ways to calculate distribution rates. The first way, which is the most relevant for shareholder returns, is at the share price.
The second way to calculate distribution rate is at the net asset value. This is most relevant for determining the sustainability of the distribution.
When a CEF announces an upcoming distribution, it generally announces three dates:
All things equal, a share price will reflect the amount of a distribution.
For instance, if a CEF closed at $20.00 per share the day before its ex-distribution date, and its distribution was going to be $0.50, the morning of its ex-distribution date, it would open at $19.50.
This doesn't always occur, but over time discrepancies tend to net out to $0.00.
Share price and distributions are linked together. Why does this matter? Some funds distribute more money than their portfolios are generating. They do this by distributing your own capital back to you. We call this destructive return of capital.
Over time, a distribution consistently paid from destructive return of capital will erode a fund's NAV. With an eroded NAV, the fund has less capital to generate future income and capital gains. It is essentially distributing its capital as a distribution, instead of investing that capital to meet its investment strategy. Although a CEF's share price is largely independent of its NAV (because of discounts and premiums) in the short term, over a full market cycle the NAV typically prevails.
CEFs with unsustainable distribution policies, as history shows, will almost certainly be forced to cut their distribution amount in the future.
If a fund's policy was to distribute 25% of NAV when the NAV is at $20 per share, the distribution amount will be $5.00 per share. A year later, when the fund has already paid out $5 of destructive return of capital, all else equal, the NAV will be $15.00. Twenty-five percent of $15.00 is $3.75. This means the distribution amount will fall from $5.00 per share to $3.75, a 25% reduction.
Shareholders are left with a declining NAV, more than likely a declining share price, a portfolio bereft of earnings power, and a highly reduced distribution.
We believe distribution policies reliant upon destructive return of capital are economically fraudulent, although the funds that execute such policies make sure to follow the letter of the law as they pull the wool over unwitting investors' eyes.
Often, income-seeking investors become enamored with a CEF's distribution rate. They lose sight of the share price return. Chasing after exceptionally high distribution rates is one sure path to CEF investment disappointment. As pointed out, a high distribution rate can be accompanied by a declining share price return.
If a CEF's distribution rate looks too good to be true, it is. Note that we didn't write "it might be" too good to be true. It is too good to be true. By keeping your eye on the total return, you will not get suckered into purchasing a CEF with a high distribution rate and a declining share price return.