The Ultimate Defensive Dividend

A few months ago the nation was locked in the throes of the financial crisis. Markets were crashing. Experts spoke of financial calamity and depression. Hope evaporated. This was to be a financial disaster for the ages.

Look what’s happened.

The Dow Jones Average recently broke the psychologically significant 10,000 mark. The S&P 500 is up +22% so far this year and has risen +62% since its March lows. Job growth has yet to follow suit, but the economic recovery nevertheless appears to be underway.

Even so, the strength — and duration — of the recovery is unknown. Certainly we all hope it will be strong and long-lived with a rising market to match. Given the uncertainty in the economy, however, and the fact that the markets have run so much already, it might be time to play defense with at least part of your portfolio.

Health care can be a great way to do just that. People get sick no matter what kind of shape the economy is in. Even so, this sector hasn’t performed well, largely as a result of the ongoing health care debate in Washington. In fact, health care is the S&P 500’s worst-performing sector this year.

One sector of health care is relatively shielded from any affects of the proposed legislation: Health care real estate investment trusts.

Health Care REIT (NYSE: HCN, $44.50) buys, develops and leases medical facilities. The company owns a diversified portfolio of 620 properties in 39 states. Properties include senior-living facilities, medical office space, nursing homes and specialty clinics.

People always need health care. And health care providers always have to pay the rent. No part of any proposed legislation would change that.

Two-thirds of HCN’s revenue is derived from senior living facilities. These properties are in demand, and that demand isn‘t going to abate any time soon. People are living longer, and the fastest-growing segment of the population is 65 or older. And an enormous population bubble, the “baby boomers,” are hitting retirement age.

While these senior-living properties run the risk of some tenants losing Medicare funding, about two thirds of HCN’s tenants are private-pay and invulnerable to potential entitlement-program cutbacks. Another factor that adds to HCN’s margin of safety is its medical office space, which represents about 26% of revenue. Office properties tend to be in prime locations in the premium areas surrounding a hospital, where doctors and other medical professionals prefer to locate their practices.

HCN isn’t just a steady income stream, it’s a growing one. The company’s strong balance sheet allows it to raise funds to acquire new properties. In fact, some $639 million in new properties will begin generating revenue in 2009 and 2010. And HCN already has leased 90% of the new spaces coming available in 2009-2011.

All of that sounds good. But the $64,000 question is how HCN has performed in sluggish markets.

While the S&P 500 is significantly lower now than 10 years ago, HCN has averaged more than +8% a year in total return in the same period. In the past three tumultuous years, the S&P 500 has lost about -20%. HCN, for its part, returned investors about +10% a year.

The result of HCN’s desirable stable of recession-proof properties and its healthy financial footing is its dividend. As a REIT, HCN is required to pay out at least 90% of taxable income to shareholders. The company’s stable and predictable cash flow goes right into your pocket.

HCN currently pays an annual dividend of $2.72 a share in quarterly payments of $0.68. The last dividend represented the 153rd consecutive quarterly dividend the company has paid. In addition, the dividend has been raised every single year for the past 17 years. HCN currently yields a solid 6.1%.

In the current real estate market, HCN should be able to acquire new properties on the cheap. The company recently raised about $370 million in a stock offering and an additional $300 million issuing debt. The company appears poised to take this opportunity to expand.

HCN should forge on in good markets and bad. Income investors should have something in the market that can continue to thrive even if the economy flounders in the years ahead.

As the stock has surged an astounding +35% since July, however, it makes sense to buy HCN on a pullback below $40.