This article will help you understand the characteristics that define both types of stock, and can help you decide if preferred stock belongs in your investment portfolio.

What is Preferred Stock?

Preferred stocks (sometimes called “preferreds”) are a type of stock with bond-like features.

Most preferred stocks pay a regular dividend that is very similar to the regular coupon payments offered by bonds. For example, a preferred share might offer a 6% dividend yield. If you purchase a share for $100, you could expect a $6 annualized dividend payment.

Also like bonds, the market value of each preferred share fluctuates with respect to interest rate changes and the issuer’s creditworthiness. The value also partially depends on the business performance and earnings potential of the issuer (to a lesser degree than common stock).

While most bonds have a fixed maturity date, preferred stock is often issued in perpetuity. To recoup your initial investment, you generally must sell the shares to another investor. For this reason, many preferred shares are sold at a discount to the initial face value on the secondary market.

The stock is called “preferred” because shareholders receive preference over common stockholders with regard to dividend payments and bankruptcy claims.

Why Do Companies Issue Preferred Stock?

Companies issue all forms of equity (and debt) for one reason – to raise capital that can be used to improve the business.

Many companies that issue preferred shares are required by regulators to have adequate capital to support their debt liabilities, and preferred stock is a relatively cheap way to maintain a healthy debt-to-equity ratio. Although preferred shares behave much like bonds, they are treated as equity on the balance sheet. This is important because too much debt can result in a downgraded bond rating by the rating agencies, which can lead to a number of other corporate problems.

Perhaps even more importantly, preferred dividends can be suspended if a company faces financial hardship, while bond interest payments cannot. If a company misses the interest payment on a debt security, it can be considered in default and risks being forced into debt reorganization.

Another reason that companies issue preferred stock is to restrict voting rights. Common stockholders can vote to appoint the company’s board of directors, among other things. Preferred stockholders typically do not receive voting rights, and therefore have less influence on corporate policy decisions. Companies that want to limit the control they give to shareholders can issue preferred stock as an alternative (or supplement) to common stock.

What are the Advantages of Preferred Stock?

1) Consistent Income

The dividends provided by preferred stock can be an excellent and predictable source of income. In many situations, preferreds offer a much higher yield than corporate bonds.

2) Preferred Status

Dividends must be paid on the preferred stock before any common stock. Furthermore, most preferred dividends are cumulative. If a company fails to pay a dividend in full, the company must make payment at a later date. No common stock dividends can be paid until all preferred dividends are paid.

In situations of financial distress where the company must be sold or reorganized, the interests of preferred shareholder are usually placed ahead of common stockholders, but always behind the debt holders (bond owners).

3) Tax Advantages

Many preferred dividends are considered “qualified” by the IRS and taxed at a preferential rate (the same rate as long-term capital gains).

In contrast, corporate bond interest is taxed as ordinary income.

4) Convertibility

Convertible preferred stock contains a provision that allows the holder to convert the preferred stock into common stock under certain conditions. The provision usually states a future date when conversion may begin and specifies the conversion rate from preferred to common stock.

This feature allows preferred shareholders to share in the potential upside of the underlying common stock. However, not all preferred stock offers this provision.

What are the Disadvantages of Preferred Stock?

1) Limited Growth Potential

Common stockholders share in the growth of a company through higher stock prices over time (capital appreciation), while the return on preferred stocks is almost entirely a function of the dividend yield. Preferred shareholders receive limited benefits following an improvement in the issuing company’s earnings.

If the preferred stock can be converted into common stock, this problem largely disappears. But many preferred shares cannot be converted.

2) Interest Rate Risk

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