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Thanks to a comparatively good quarter for defensive sectors and value stocks, dividend stocks made a resurgence in the 1st quarter. Of the three major dividend stock groups - high yield, dividend growth and dividend quality - high yielders performed the best. This group tends to be overweight consumer staples, energy and financials, three sectors that all outperformed the market in the 1st quarter. All three groups beat the S&P 500, so income seekers finally had a comparatively good quarter.

The list of top performers is actually pretty diverse. It includes U.S. and international funds, high yielders and dividend growers, value, low volatility and even real assets. 2022 has been the best run for dividend stocks relative to the S&P 500 and the ETFs on this quarter's best performer list all posted solid returns even though the S&P 500, Russell 2000 and Nasdaq 100 lost between 5-9%.

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One interesting thing about Q1's winner list is who isn't on it. The two Vanguard heavyweights - the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG) and the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM) - are nowhere to be found. Neither are the iShares Core Dividend Growth ETF (DGRO) or the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL). Or the WisdomTree U.S. Quality Dividend Growth ETF (DGRW) or the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (SDY). In fact, all of them (with the exception of VYM) posted negative returns for the 1st quarter.

This was a good quarter for some of the smaller and lesser known industry names.

Here's the list of the best performing dividend ETFs for the 1st quarter of 2022.

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The best performing dividend ETF was the Pacer Global Cash Cows Dividend ETF (GCOW), a fund that has appeared on the monthly top performer lists throughout 2022. High free cash flow yielders is a strategy I've been a fan of for a while (disclosure: I own shares of the Pacer U.S. Cash Cows 100 ETF (COWZ)). It has a history of working well over the long-term even if recent years haven't necessarily favored it.

An interesting entrant on this list is the Capital Group Dividend Value ETF (CGDV). Capital Group is one of the world's largest investment management firms. It's the parent company of mutual fund subsidiary American Funds and is new to the ETF space. Their suite of 6 ETFs was just launched on 2/22/22, which is a bit of fortunate timing since it allowed the fund to capture some of the upside while avoiding the downside during the 1st half of the quarter. The initial half dozen have experienced modest success so far (a combined $600 million in assets), but I expect this lineup to expand over time.

Among the largest ETFs making the list are the iShares Core High Dividend ETF (HDV), the iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY) and the SPDR Portfolio S&P 500 High Dividend ETF (SPYD). Not surprisingly, all are focused on high yield stocks. The WisdomTree U.S. High Dividend ETF (DHS) also focuses on this group and is one of just two dividend ETFs gaining more than 7% this quarter. It's a bit unique in that it weights based on aggregate cash dividends paid, giving it a larger allocation to the stocks that did particularly well.

The Virtus Real Asset Income ETF (VRAI) is unique in that it offers an alternative to traditional income strategies. It invests in real estate, natural resources and infrastructure stocks with a history of providing income and dividend growth. Real estate is certainly no stranger to income portfolios, but natural resources can provide diversification. It gained 6.5% thanks to the performance of energy and miner stocks.

International stocks didn't manage to keep pace with the S&P 500, but there were still some winners. The Invesco International Dividend Achievers ETF (PID) was a standout having gained 7%. The First Trust S&P International Dividend Aristocrats ETF (FID) follows a similar strategy, while a few other high yielders appear further down the list. The iShares Asia/Pacific Dividend ETF (DVYA) managed to buck some of the weakness in this region to post a gain of more than 3%.

Other ETFs worth noting:

iShares' twin dividend ETFs - the iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY) and the iShares International Select Dividend ETF (IDV) - both land on the Q1 winner list having returned 5% and 3%, respectively.

A quick shoutout to the smaller ETFs making the list - the Global Beta Smart Income ETF (GBDV), the TrueShares Low Volatility Equity Income ETF (DIVZ), the Sound Equity Income ETF (SDEI), the Dimensional U.S. Small Cap Value ETF (DFSV) and the WBI Power Factor High Dividend ETF (WBIY).

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