Are my income giants about to cut their 6% dividends?

As a writer for the Motley Fool, I cover a wide range of stocks. But much of my own cash is invested in high-yield dividend stocks, including the two I’m going to look at in this article.

Dividend cuts are bad news for my portfolio. So I’m always on the lookout for signs that a company’s payout may have become unaffordable and be heading for a cut.

Should I sell before it’s too late?

Shares of Stagecoach Group (LSE: SGC) rose by 5% on Wednesday morning, after the group’s management confirmed that full-year profits should be in line with expectations.

However, the group warned that bus passenger numbers have fallen over the last ten months. Passenger numbers on Stagecoach’s UK regional bus services fell by 1.7% over the 44 weeks to 4 March. For London buses, the fall was 0.9%, while the group’s US bus routes saw passenger numbers fall 2.2%.

Stagecoach stock has fallen by 18% over the last year, due to fears that slowing passenger growth could put pressure on profits. Although Wednesday’s update seemed to comfort the market, I have to admit that I’m not completely convinced.

The company’s smaller rival Go-Ahead Group issued a profit warning for the year ahead in February, having previously confirmed in November that “our expectations for the full year remain unchanged”. I’m concerned that we could see the same pattern of events play out with Stagecoach.

Cheap enough to buy anyway?

On the other hand, a fair degree of risk is already priced into Stagecoach stock. The shares currently trade on a forecast P/E of 8.5, with a prospective yield of 5.8%.

It’s also worth remembering that passenger numbers on public transport have risen reliably over the last fifty years. Growth has only slowed during recessions.

I’m concerned about Stagecoach, but I continue to hold.

How much longer must we wait?

When Vodafone Group (LSE: VOD) sold its share of US mobile operator Verizon in 2014, shareholders were promised that the dividend wouldn’t fall and that investment initiatives would deliver replacement growth elsewhere in the business.

The dividend hasn’t been cut and Vodafone remains a 6% yield stock that’s a cornerstone of many income portfolios. But the promised growth has been slow in coming. Last week’s news of a $23bn merger between Vodafone India and rival Idea Cellular seems sensible and was well received by markets. But it doesn’t seem likely to deliver a step change in profit growth.

Here’s the risk

The problem for income investors is that Vodafone’s dividend hasn’t been covered by earnings since 2015. And while earnings are expected to rise by nearly 50% to €0.077 per share in 2017/18, this is still only half the group’s forecast dividend payout of €0.15 per share.

Vodafone’s uncovered dividend has also contributed to the rapid growth of the company’s net debt. This reached €42bn at the end of September 2016, up from a low of just €13bn after the Verizon deal in 2014.

I suspect Vodafone has another year to prove that it can boost profits to a level where its dividend is affordable. But a dividend cut is surely a growing risk — and the prospect of one could do serious damage to the group’s share price.

Five income stocks to bank on?

If you're looking for reliable income buys for your portfolio, then I believe you can't afford to ignore the stocks featured in 5 Shares To Retire on.

Each of these high-quality firms has a long history of dividend growth and enjoys above-average profitability. As you'd expect, this mini portfolio of dividend kings includes both pharmaceutical and consumer goods stocks, plus a couple of surprises.

Our experts believe that these stocks could help you retire early. For full details, download this free, no-obligation report today. To get started, just click here now.

Roland Head owns shares of Stagecoach Group and Vodafone Group. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Stagecoach. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.