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Are preferred securities right for you?

Higher yields may be attractive, but understand the risks before you invest.

  • By Fidelity Learning Center
  • Preferred Stocks
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If you are like many income-oriented investors, prolonged periods of low interest rates may spur you to seek out investments that have the potential to deliver higher yields. In your quest for more attractive yields, preferred securities may pop up on your radar screen.

At first glance, preferred securities may seem like an appropriate investment for those who are primarily looking for income-producing investments. While these hybrid securities often deliver yields higher than those of common stock or corporate bonds, there is more to the story. Before you invest, you need to understand what makes preferred securities different from common stocks and other high-yield securities.

A peek under the hood

Preferred securities, which are sometimes referred to as “hybrids”, combine the features and characteristics of both stocks and bonds. Corporations often issue multiple series of preferred securities and the specific features of each can vary significantly from one issue to another.

Like common stocks, preferred securities provide you with an ownership or debtor stake in a publicly traded company. The term “preferred” refers to the fact that these securities provide shareholders with priority status when it comes to dividend or interest payments, which typically pay out at rates higher than those of common share dividends or bonds. Unlike shares of common stock or bonds, preferred securities carry no voting rights.

In the event of a bankruptcy or other financial difficulties, preferred securities are generally senior to common stock in a company’s capital structure, but subordinate to secured bonds. This means that preferred security shareholders normally receive income before any dividend payments to common stock shareholders are paid out. If a company were forced to reduce or suspend dividend payments, common stock dividends would be impacted before preferred dividends. Keep in mind, however, that preferred securities are subject to greater credit risk than secured bonds from the same issuer.

Fidelity’s Preferred Security Screener provides issuing company growth and management statistics from the issuer's financial statements. They are denoted and provided in the Snapshot pages.

While preferred securities generally offer attractive yields, opportunities for capital appreciation are generally lower than those from shares of common stock. Shareholders forgo any common stock dividends and the potentially larger future capital appreciation associated with common stock. Though capital gains opportunities for preferred securities holders can occur during periods of declining interest rates and improved credit conditions, the majority of investment returns from preferred securities have historically come from their periodic income distributions. It’s important to note that, unlike common shares, you typically do not have the option of reinvesting dividends into additional preferred shares.

Key features to consider before investing

No two preferred securities are alike, so take the time to read the fine print and determine whether a particular issue you may be considering aligns with your investment needs, risk tolerance, and goals. Some of the features to examine include:

Payment Features

Preferred securities usually make payments in the form of either interest or dividends based on the par (face) value of the security on a monthly, quarterly or semi-annual basis. Payments may be made at fixed, floating, or adjustable rates. Preferred security payments are contingent upon the financial health of the issuer and may also be dependent on conditions or events indicated in the security’s offering documents. Some preferred securities allow the issuer to defer or simply skip payments.

Cumulative or Non-Cumulative Dividends

In most cases, deferred or missed payments on cumulative preferred securities accumulate as obligations of the issuer, and must generally be paid out to holders of preferred securities before common shareholders can receive dividend payments. However, with non-cumulative preferred securities, missed payments do not accumulate as obligations of the issuer and shareholders are not entitled to receive missed payments.

Certain preferred securities have more complex payment terms. For example, some have a floating or adjustable rate of payment based upon a short or long-term interest rate index, such as the 3-Month LIBOR. Others may begin with a fixed coupon and convert into a floating coupon at some specified date (often referred to as a fixed-to-floating coupon payment). Such variable or adjustable payment terms may make it difficult to know for certain what yield you can expect to earn.

Maturity Date

Preferred securities may have a stated maturity date; however, many are perpetual and do not. Additionally, even if there is a stated maturity date, the issuer may have the option to extend that date one or more times.

Call Features/Early Redemption

With or without a maturity date, many preferred securities have optional, mandatory and/or conditional early redemption or call provisions that permit the issuer to redeem the securities prior to the stated maturity date (if there is one) or at other times (in the case of no stated maturity date). These types of features can make preferred securities less appropriate for investors who are looking for steady payments over longer periods of time.

Convertibility

Convertible preferred securities can typically be exchanged for a specified amount of a different security, often the common stock of the issuing company. Convertible preferred securities may combine the fixed income characteristic of bonds with the potential appreciation characteristics of stocks. There are often provisions attached to convertible preferred securities that place restrictions on when they can be converted. Additionally, because convertible preferred securities can typically be exchanged for shares of the issuer’s stock, the value of these securities may be more volatile than other types of preferred securities.

Taxes

Not all income from preferred securities is taxed the same way. Different issues from the same issuer may be structured differently and have different tax consequences. Be sure to read the Taxation section of the preferred security’s offering documents to understand how it may be taxed. Consult with your tax advisor for additional information on how they may impact your tax situation.

Yield

Preferred securities may provide more attractive yields than securities that have seniority in payment priority. Higher yields compensate investors for the increased risk associated with a lower payment priority. Generally speaking, higher yields are a sign of potentially greater risk.

There are a variety of yield calculations that can be used when evaluating a preferred security. Current yield (also commonly referred to as “dividend yield”) is a commonly used yield calculation for traditional preferred securities. To calculate current yield, divide the annual interest or dividend payment amount by the current market price of the security and multiply the result by 100. For example, a preferred with a $25 par or face value with a fixed coupon rate of 6.5% pays an annual interest or dividend payment of $1.625. If the current market price of the security were $24.25, the current yield would be 6.701% ($1.625 divided by $24.25 times 100).

Yield to call, yield to maturity, and yield to worst are yield calculations more commonly used for preferred securities that are debt or have debt-like attributes. Yield to maturity is the rate of return anticipated if a security is held to maturity date. The calculation of yield to maturity takes into account the current market price, par value, coupon rate and time to maturity. It assumes that all coupon payments are reinvested at the same rate.

Yield to call is the yield on a security assuming it will be redeemed by the issuer on a specified call date. The calculation of yield to call takes into account the current market price, call price, coupon rate and the length of time to the call date. Yield to worst refers to the lowest potential yield anticipated on a security.

As the information here explains, preferred securities are more complex than common stock or bonds. And, while they offer higher yields, they also carry additional risks that should be considered before investing.

For help calculating yields on preferred securities with a defined maturity date, access Fidelity’s Price/Yield Calculator.

Fidelity’s Preferred Security Screener includes securities with a fixed or stepped coupon rate. The Preferred Security Screener does not generally include securities with a variable, floating, or adjustable coupon rate. Customers can screen for payment, maturity, call and convertibility features in the Preferred Security Screener.

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Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Keep in mind that investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money.

Preferred securities are subject to interest rate risk. (As interest rates rise, preferred securities prices usually fall, and vice versa. This effect is usually more pronounced for longer-term securities.) Preferred securities also have credit and default risks for both issuers and counterparties, liquidity risk, and if callable, call risk. Dividend or interest payments on preferred securities may be variable, suspended or deferred by the issuer at any time, and missed or deferred payments may not be paid at a future date. If payments are suspended or deferred by the issuer, the deferred income may still be taxable. See your tax advisor for more details. Most Preferred securities have call features which allow the issuer to redeem the securities at its discretion on specified dates as well as upon the occurrence of certain events. Other early redemption provisions may exist which could affect yield. Certain preferred securities are convertible into common stock of the issuer, therefore, their market prices can be sensitive to changes in the value of the issuer's common stock. Some preferred securities are perpetual, meaning they have no stated maturity date. In the case of preferred securities with a stated maturity date, the issuer may, under certain circumstances, extend this date at its discretion. Extension of maturity date would delay final repayment on the securities. Please read the prospectus, which may be located on the SEC's EDGAR system, to understand the terms, conditions and specific features of the security prior to investing.

The Fidelity Preferred Security Screener is a research tool provided to help self-directed investors evaluate these types of securities. The criteria and inputs entered are at the sole discretion of the user, and all screens or strategies with pre-selected criteria (including expert ones) are solely for the convenience of the user. Expert Screens are provided by independent companies not affiliated with Fidelity. Information supplied or obtained from these Screeners is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or guidance, an offer of or a solicitation of an offer to buy or sell securities, or a recommendation or endorsement by Fidelity of any security or investment strategy. Fidelity does not endorse or adopt any particular investment strategy or approach to screening or evaluating stocks, preferred securities, exchange traded products or closed end funds. Fidelity makes no guarantees that information supplied is accurate, complete, or timely, and does not provide any warranties regarding results obtained from their use. Determine which securities are right for you based on your investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial situation and other individual factors and re-evaluate them on a periodic basis.
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