Investment trusts can hold back up to 15% of their dividends to build up a revenue reserve, which they can then draw on to maintain their own dividends in years when company payouts fall.
Many high-profile investment trusts have managed to raise their dividend every year for decades regardless of dividend cuts by companies. The main reason for this is that trusts, unlike open-ended investment funds, don’t have to distribute all the dividends they get each year. They can hold back up to 15% to build up a revenue reserve, which they can then draw on to maintain their own dividends in years when company payouts fall.
This can be useful for investors who prefer a steady income from their funds. You could do a similar thing with your own portfolio, by putting aside 10% or 15% of your dividend income to be drawn on only during market crises. However, avoiding dipping into that requires discipline, while having it out of reach inside an investment trust doesn’t present the same temptation.
That said, it is important to understand that a revenue reserve is not a sum of money separate from the trust’s portfolio, sitting in a bank account for emergencies. It is an accounting entry: the money will be invested alongside the trust’s other assets – in stocks, bonds or something else – on which the trust will hopefully be earning income and/or capital gains. Drawing on the reserve means selling assets. Typically the amount needed would be small, but if the trust had a large revenue reserve and had to draw on it for quite a while, the portfolio would shrink by a meaningful amount, which would cut future dividend income.
Following a change to tax laws in 2012, investment trusts are also allowed to pay dividends out of realised capital gains, known as the capital reserve. A few trusts now aim to pay out a flexible proportion of their value each year, regardless of whether that comes from capital or income. Drawing on capital to maintain a fixed dividend could make sense as a one-off in a crisis, but if a trust is forced to draw on revenue or capital repeatedly, the dividend is not sustainable.