For investors that count on dividend payments to cover their living expenses, the prospect of a dividend cut can create real headaches. That's why some investors own only the income-producing stocks that have never cut their dividend.
It's easy to find such companies. Product planners at Standard & Poor's track a group of these steady Eddies in a category called Dividend Aristocrats. These are companies that have raised their dividend for at least 25 straight years. Right now, there are 55 companies that hold that distinction, as all of them managed to boost their payouts -- even during the economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009.
As we've noted here at StreetAuthority on a number of occasions in the past year, investors can no longer focus simply on a dividend yield but must instead focus on dividend growth. Companies that will boost their dividends at a decent annual clip will stay ahead of the curve as the Federal Reserve starts to allow interest rates to rise.
Most of the 55 Aristocrats seem to be boosting their dividends at a 5% to 6% clip these days (though can offer up enticing Total Yields through share buybacks and debt reductions). Only a handful of companies -- nine of them, to be exact -- can be considered to be great dividend growth stocks. All of them have boosted the payout by at least 10% in each of the past three years.
These companies have been sharply boosting dividends for a pair of reasons: Cash flow has been growing at a solid clip, and/or the payout ratios had been quite low but are beginning to rise.
Of course, if the payout ratios were so low that the dividend payments implied skimpy yields, then income-seekers aren't really interested. Here's a look at those nine companies in the context of their dividend yields.
To be sure, none of these stocks sport eye-popping yields. Target's (NYSE: TGT) recent cyber-security woes means you shouldn't expect much dividend growth in 2014.
But what about the rest of the pack? The ones that should hold the greatest appeal are the companies that still have payout ratios below 40%. That means that a modest rise in cash flow, coupled with a boost to the payout ratio, can translate into sustained strong dividend growth.
Notably, the Aristocrats with the highest current yields also have fairly high payout ratios, which means their dividends are only likely to grow in the future at a pace in line with cash flow growth.
Only W.W. Grainger (NYSE: GWW), Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) and Cintas (Nasdaq: CTAS) have room to boost their payout ratios. Intriguingly, all three companies are poised to benefit from an eventual upturn in construction spending in particular, or capital spending in general, as the economy strengthens.
The key takeaway: These firms boosted their payouts at a double-digit pace in each of the past three years and have a good shot at repeating that performance over the next three years as well.
Risks to Consider: A reasonably supportive economic backdrop has given these firms the confidence to boost their dividends at a solid pace, though it's too soon to know if the economy will continue to justify continuing confidence, as 2014 has gotten off to a slow start.
Action to Take --> The Dividend Aristocrat investment theme has resonated with investors, especially after certain companies proved their mettle during the financial crisis and ensuing economic doldrums. T
Though I've focused on companies in the group with the most robust dividend growth, investors can also focus on slower growers that have the best yields by investing in the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYSE: SDY). Though the exchange-traded fund (ETF) has moved in lockstep with the S&P 500 throughout the market rebound, it is likely to hold up better in a market pullback, thanks to the defensive nature of high-yield stocks.