Special Report

10 Safest High-Yield Dividends

Dividend payments in the S&P 500 keep setting new all-time highs. As of October, roughly 425 S&P 500 members paid dividends. The dividend yield for 98 of these companies was north of 3%. Still, not all dividends are created equally.

Some companies may have high dividend yields because their share price declined recently. At other companies, high dividend yield may be a sign of stability and safety. These dividend payments are not only unlikely to be cut or skipped in the near future, but rather raised for years into the future. 24/7 Wall St. identified the safest of the high dividend yield stocks in the S&P 500.

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Click here to see the 9 high-yield dividends for risk takers

Income investors may opt for a Treasury note and its virtual guarantee of principal. But many investors want a higher yield than that of a Treasury security, as well as the potential for greater payments and capital appreciation in the years ahead. Further, interest rates have been set to rise for over a year now, but the 10-year Treasury yield is still currently just under 2.50%.

While many companies use stock buybacks, dividends are still the most direct method of returning capital to shareholders. Companies can repurchase stock simply because they have some extra cash on hand and the stock price may warrant it. Raising the dividend, on the other hand, implies that companies have visibility and confidence in their businesses for years into the future. To be considered a safe dividend, a stock’s current payout has to be within the means of the company’s current cash and earnings.

It turns out that only one of the 10 highest yielding S&P 500 stocks also made the list of the safest dividends — AT&T. The safest dividends do not usually have very high yields in the 8% to 10% range — such yields are often risky and the payments in danger of being slashed. While we used a market capitalization floor of $10 billion, all of the high yielding stocks with safe dividends have much larger market caps.

Companies that will likely not be able to afford their dividends in the years ahead were screened out as well. A dividend payout ratio of 80% of earnings was generally used as a bar, so that companies can retain some earnings for growth opportunities or stability ahead. REITS and similar pass-through structures were automatically excluded due to guidelines on having to pay out almost all of their income and due to potential fluctuations in those payouts.

While large scale mergers often make dividend and earnings analysis more difficult, the AT&T-DirecTV and Kinder Morgan deals will likely support the same or even higher dividend payouts ahead.

> Dividend yield: 5.30%
> Annualized dividend: $1.84
> Share price: $35.50
> P/E ratio: 13.65
> Industry: Telecommunications

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is the top dividend payer among major telecom players, with a 5.3% yield. AT&T is also the highest-yielding stock in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Some may wonder about its dividend’s health following the DirecTV (NASDAQ: DTV) acquisition, but it seems unlikely that the deal will lead to any cuts in payments. AT&T had more than $18 billion in earnings in 2013. It paid out nearly $10 billion in dividends and used about $13 billion on share buybacks last year. AT&T should be more than able to keep its dividend safe, despite laying out cash for the merger, and should still be able to raise its dividend ahead.

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> Dividend yield: 4.50%
> Annualized dividend: $2.08
> Share price: $46.51
> P/E ratio: 18.10
> Industry: Tobacco

Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) is perhaps the most recognizable tobacco giant, and it has a market cap north of $90 billion. The stock has hit several new highs in 2014, and the current $46.40 share price is actually above the consensus analyst target price. Altria recently bumped up its dividend to $0.52 from $0.48 per quarter, which has kept its yield up around 4.5%. Cigarette sales volumes have been shrinking. U.S. adult smoking rates, too, have dropped — from 42.4% in 1965 to just 19% in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this, Altria has still grown its earnings per share, and it maintains a profitable stake in beer maker SABMiller. With rivals involved in mergers, Altria is the easiest dividend to analyze of any major tobacco stock — even if it has been slow to push aggressively into the e-cigarette market.

Consolidated Edison
> Dividend yield: 4.40%
> Annualized dividend: $2.52
> Share price: $57.05
> P/E ratio: 15.09
> Industry: Energy

ConEd is an electric utility company supplying power to much of New York City. As a regulated utility, ConEd has to receive state approval to increase billing rates to customers. Still, the utility beat earnings expectations and lifted the lower-end of its earnings guidance with its August earnings report. ConEd has also been managing its costs better at a time when future rate hikes are likely to be rejected or limited. Its dividend yield of about 4.4% has ample coverage, as its current payout ratio is just a 66%. This is an important consideration given that earnings are expected to be basically flat in 2014 and up only marginally in 2015.

> Dividend yield: 3.6%
> Annualized dividend: $4.28
> Share price: $118.09
> P/E ratio: 11.18
> Industry: Oil and Gas

Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) is one of the nation’s largest energy companies, with a market cap above $220 billion. Chevron reported $220 billion in revenue in 2013, lower than in 2012 and 2011, but the company’s net income of $21.4 billion offers a solid base for dividend payments. Chevron keeps adjusting its portfolio of projects, and it has more than $40 billion between its cash and long-term investments. The company has been increasing its efforts in shale and other projects, and its payout is only 40% of expected earnings per share. Chevron’s dividend yield of 3.6% is much higher than the sub-3% yield of rival ExxonMobil. Despite the drop in oil prices after summer, Chevron has the ability to grow its dividend while even buying back stock if it wishes. At $118, shares are down from a 52-week high of above $135, which is also what analysts think the fair value price is.

Cisco Systems
> Dividend yield: 3.05%
> Annualized dividend: $0.76
> Share price: $25.01
> P/E ratio: 11.63
> Industry: Networking Equipment

Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: CSCO) has become the king of dividends among technology giants that led the industry in the 1990s and much of the last decade. Despite frequently reporting disappointing earnings since the recession, Cisco has been restructuring and downsizing less productive aspects of its overall business. Last year, Cisco spent $3.76 billion on dividends and bought back some 420 million common shares worth $9.54 billion. It also still had $52.1 billion in cash. Cisco can likely keep raising its dividend, as its payout ratio is under 37% of adjusted earnings.

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Duke Energy
> Dividend yield: 4.20%
> Annualized dividend: $3.18
> Share price: $75.25
> P/E ratio: 16.32
> Industry: Energy

Duke Energy Corporation (NYSE: DUK) is the king of utilities with a $53 billion market cap. So far, 2014 seems like a good year for Duke Energy, as investors have pushed the company’s valuation more in line with its peers. Its payout ratio was 73% of 2013 earnings, and is under 70% of expected 2014 earnings — relatively safe coverage for a utility. The company recently committed $500 million to a major expansion in solar power, and it recently struck a deal with Dynegy to sell its Midwest power generation business, including 11 power plants, for $2.8 billion in cash. It is also part of an $8 billion renewable energy project proposal to supply Los Angeles. Duke Energy has paid a dividend on its common stock for 88 consecutive years.

Kraft Foods
> Dividend yield: 3.70%
> Annualized dividend: $2.10
> Share price: $56.10
> P/E ratio: 17.88
> Industry: Food Processing

Kraft Foods Group Inc. (NASDAQ: KRFT) is home to a number of household name brands, including Kraft, Jell-O, Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer, and Planters. Its 3.7% yield is more than a full point above its large peers, and its $33 billion market cap makes it a formidable food giant. Kraft reported 2013 net income of more than $2.7 billion, and it paid out about $1.2 billion in dividends last year. And its dividend can likely rise further. At $56.05 a share, the consensus price target of $59.65 and the dividend still imply a roughly 10% expected upside. Kraft is also a relatively defensive stock that can provide downside protection in times of market turmoil or volatility.

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> Dividend yield: 3.10%
> Annualized dividend: $3.36
> Share price: $106.83
> P/E ratio: 17.57
> Industry: Personal Care

Kimberly-Clark Corporation (NYSE: KMB) and rival Procter & Gamble are similar in many regards. However, one factor that may make Kimberly-Clark a safer choice is that the market now knows what to expect from its upcoming health care spinoff. The company increased the targeted size of its buyback plan to $2 billion for the year. With a $40 billion market cap, Kimberly-Clark’s 3.1% dividend yield is very safe. It also seems that the company is more than eager to keep up its streak of raising its dividend, after raising it in each of the last 42 consecutive years.

Kinder Morgan
> Dividend yield: 4.40%
> Annualized dividend: $1.72
> Share price: $38.80
> P/E ratio: 31.23
> Industry: Oil and Gas

Kinder Morgan, Inc. (NYSE: KMI) is soon to become one of America’s largest energy companies after it completes the rollup of its three master limited partnerships. To prove how much confidence it has in the plan, the oil and gas infrastructure giant significantly raised its dividend on the announcement, from $0.43 to $0.50 per quarter. More importantly, CEO Richard Kinder already telegraphed up front that he wants to grow this dividend by 10% each year from 2015 to 2020. While the consensus price target is above $42, versus a current share price of $38.80, Wells Fargo recently lifted its value range to $46 to $48, and another analyst sees it rising to $50. Kinder Morgan could be the premiere oil and gas infrastructure stock for investors going forward.

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Southern Company
> Dividend yield: 4.80%
> Annualized dividend: $2.10
> Share price: $44.07
> P/E ratio: 15.79
> Industry: Energy

Southern Company (NYSE: SO) is a utility holding company based in Atlanta. Southern’s current yield of about 4.8% is not the highest of all utilities, but it is far from the lowest. Southern’s $2.10 annual payout has ample earnings coverage, both compared to last year’s earnings as well as compared to expected 2014 and 2015 earnings. The earnings per share estimates of $2.79 in 2014 and $2.86 in 2015 should include the effect of higher costs associated with the construction of Mississippi Power’s Kemper County integrated gasification combined cycle project. With a market cap nearing $40 billion, Southern Company has been growing its dividend at a measured pace in recent years. While several analysts downgraded the stock, the consensus price target is still very close to the current share price.

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