These five FTSE 100 dividend stocks could be some of the best to watch next month. These shares have been selected for their highly defensive natures.
FTSE 100 2023 performance
2023 was a volatile year for the FTSE 100, but the UK’s premier index nevertheless ended the year up by 3.8%. This compares with a global average growth of 20% when using the MSCI All Country World Index, the 25% growth experienced by the S&P 500 and the 45% NASDAQ Composite leap driven by the artificial intelligence boom.
However, the FTSE is widely regarded as a defensive index, and compares more favourably when dividend payouts are factored in. And for context, 2022 saw the NASDAQ Composite lose more than a third of its value while the FTSE rose by around 1%.
Defensive FTSE 100 stocks
Further, within the FTSE 100 there are some specific dividend stocks with a highly defensive nature. These companies enjoy an underlying business model whereby revenue and profits will continue to be generated regardless of the wider economic environment. Typically, this is because they provide essential products or services, or enjoy a wide economic moat.
In other words, a hallmark of FTSE 100 defensive stocks is that they benefit from inelasticity of demand — such that they can increase prices to match inflation if necessary. This makes them attractive in downturns, but on the other hand, these types of stocks rarely deliver large capital gains.
There are several sectors considered as defensive: for example, consumer staples, utilities, healthcare, and tobacco companies.
When considering the best dividend stocks, key factors to consider include the dividend yield, the dividend coverage ratio (how many times a company could pay the dividend with current net income), the payout ratio, whether there’s a proven history of payouts, and whether the dividend has grown over time. In particular during this high rate environment, debt is a key factor to watch; previously manageable debt piles are becoming more expensive to maintain and could eat into dividends.
These five FTSE 100 dividend stocks are popular defensive choices. But remember, past performance is not an indicator of future returns, and popularity does not mean an investment is better. In addition, while these are defensive companies, there are higher returns to be found in cyclical industries.
Best FTSE 100 dividend stocks to watch
Unilever (LON: ULVR)
Unilever is a multinational consumer goods company which produces a wide range of products including food, drinks, cleaning agents, beauty and personal care products. Some of its well-known brands include Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Hellmann's.
Operating in the consumer staples sector, Unilever’s Q3 results saw underlying sales grow by 5.2% year-over-year, while its €billion premium brand portfolio saw underlying sales growth of 7.2%.
Regardless of price rises, brand loyalty towards certain food staples appears robust.
However, Unilever shares have fallen by nearly 10% over the past year — and the company has responded with an action plan to improve value creation through 2024. The dividend yield may appear underwhelming, but this is often the trade-off for defensive qualities.
Dividend Yield: 4%
Phoenix Group (LON: PHNX)
Phoenix Group has made a strong recovery since mid-October, but nevertheless remains almost 14% down compared to a year ago. This may appear an opportunity, as H1 results saw the FTSE 100 insurer deliver cash generation of £898 million, allowing the company to boost its interim dividend by 5% to 26p per share.
Given that Phoenix is now on track to generate £1.3 billion to £1.4 billion of cash generation for the full year, the dividend appears safe — especially with its solvency II ratio of 180% at the top of the 140-180% management target.
Insurance is often seen as one of the safest defensive dividend sectors. However, the company’s bonds have likely fallen in value with elevated interest rates, and Phoenix also has a large debt pile to manage.
JP Morgan analysts have cut their price target from 655p to just 430p, and downgraded Phoenix to underweight, arguing that ‘the stock has too much debt leverage relative to peers, which creates numerous capital and growth risks in the long term.’
Dividend Yield: 9.8%
National Grid (LON: NG)
National Grid works within the utilities sector, operating electricity and natural gas transmission across the UK and parts of northeastern United States. It’s hard to think of a more defensive company than the one delivering the country’s energy network.
Indeed, the FTSE 100 company has risen by 35% over the past five years and still boasts an index-beating dividend yield. National Grid has invested £7.7 billion in build smart, clean energy infrastructure to boost network reliability — and found £236 million of operating cost efficiencies during 2023 to mitigate the impact of high energy prices.
And the company recently updated its five-year financial framework to 2025/26 to increase total cumulative capital investment to £42 billion — balancing dividends with future proofing.
Dividend Yield: 5.4%
Vodafone (LON: VOD)
Vodafone shares have fallen by 56% over the past five years. This may be a cautionary tale — telecoms are widely regarded as defensive and yet the stock has failed to retain its value. On the other hand, new investors might be tempted by the double-digit dividend yield alongside a price-to-earnings ratio of just 2.
But it’s worth noting this figure is based on asset sales in its last financial year which included the €8.61 billion generated from the sale of Vantage Towers. And in recent half-year results, net debt increased by €2.9 billion to €36.2 billion, raising questions over the dividend’s sustainability.
However, recent German growth could be encouraging for investors because Vodafone relies on the country for a significant chunk of its revenue. For context, 2021 legislation saw housing associations banned from bundling TV services with rental contracts, hurting Vodafone’s prospects.
CEO Margherita Della Valle enthused that ‘during the first half of the year, we have delivered improved revenue growth in nearly all of our markets and have returned to growth in Germany in the second quarter.’
Dividend Yield: 11.2%
British American Tobacco (LON: BATS)
British American Tobacco is one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, boasting a brand portfolio including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, and Pall Mall. It’s also highly defensive given the addictive nature of nicotine — and yet, shares have fallen by almost a third over the past year.
The company continues to face regulatory problems; the UK is considering a ban on single use vapes and both the government and the opposition have confirmed support for a phased ban of traditional tobacco products.
BATS is also contending with the wider fall in smoking worldwide; recently writing off £25 billion in value due to falling outlook for its brands as cigarette sales struggle in the US. And like Vodafone and Phoenix, the FTSE 100 business also has a large debt pile.
Nevertheless, the business is investing heavily in alternative products including vapes, though most profits are still derived from traditional products. In half-year results, overall revenue rose by 4.4% driven by these ‘new categories,’ whose revenue rose by 26.6%.
Dividend Yield: 9.9%
Trade and invest in over 17,000 UK, US and global shares from zero commission with us, the UK’s No.1 trading provider.* Learn more about trading or investing in shares with us, or open an account to get started today.
*Based on revenue excluding FX (published financial statements, October 2021).
This information has been prepared by IG, a trading name of IG Markets Limited. In addition to the disclaimer below, the material on this page does not contain a record of our trading prices, or an offer of, or solicitation for, a transaction in any financial instrument. IG accepts no responsibility for any use that may be made of these comments and for any consequences that result. No representation or warranty is given as to the accuracy or completeness of this information. Consequently any person acting on it does so entirely at their own risk. Any research provided does not have regard to the specific investment objectives, financial situation and needs of any specific person who may receive it. It has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and as such is considered to be a marketing communication. Although we are not specifically constrained from dealing ahead of our recommendations we do not seek to take advantage of them before they are provided to our clients. See full non-independent research disclaimer and quarterly summary.