Nowadays, everyone wants stocks that pay dividends -- especially dividends that have grown throughout a company's history. But before you pick a stock simply because of its dividend history, take a closer look; not every such stock makes a good investment.
Putting together a dividend track record
When it comes to well-established dividend stocks, few honors are more prestigious than making Standard & Poor's Dividend Aristocrats list. In order to qualify as a Dividend Aristocrat, a company has to increase the dividend on its stock every year for at least 25 years. A single misstep can ruin a decades-long good reputation, as General Electric and Pfizer discovered when they were taken off the list in 2010.
You might think that once a company makes the list, it's automatically a good candidate for someone interested in a strong dividend stock. But if you simply buy the whole list -- or rely on the SPDR S&P Dividend ETF (NYSE: SDY ) to buy some of the stocks for you -- you might be disappointed by some of the stocks you end up owning.
Let's take a look at a few of the surprising things about some of the stocks on the Dividend Aristocrats list.
1. Not all Dividend Aristocrats have high yields.
You'd think that after 25 years of raising dividends, a stock would have a pretty high yield. But there's no requirement that a Dividend Aristocrat pay a certain minimum amount in dividends.
For instance, disposable medical products manufacturer C.R. Bard (NYSE: BCR ) yields just 0.9%. But long-term investors certainly aren't complaining, as the stock has risen an average of more than 16% annually since 1990. That outstanding growth has taken what used to be a yield over 4% and reduced it to its current level.
In contrast, specialty chemical maker Sigma-Aldrich (Nasdaq: SIAL ) has always had a relatively low yield, despite a similar growth story. Its current 1.1% yield is typical for much of the past two decades. It's clear that company management targets a dividend using stock price as a factor.
Past share appreciation is great for longtime shareholders, but it doesn't help you if you're buying now. If you want high yield, don't assume just any stock on the list will give it to you.
2. Not all Dividend Aristocrats are growing their dividends quickly.
Low yields aren't the only unexpected surprise you'll sometimes get with Dividend Aristocrats. Some members of the exclusive club have much slower dividend growth rates than you might expect. Again, there's no requirement for a minimum amount by which a company has to increase its dividend -- only that it must do so once a year.
That leads to some situations in which any dividend increases are insignificant. Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED ) , for example, sports a very nice yield of almost 5%. But despite the fact that the stock has tripled in the past 10 years, it has made only token half-penny increases in its dividend every year since 2000. That has actually reduced the stock's yield from around 10% to its current level. Questar (NYSE: STR ) increased its dividend by $0.002 to $0.125 during the financial crisis in 2008, clearly in order to stay on the Aristocrats list.
3. Not all Dividend Aristocrats have healthy payout ratios.
One key to sustainable dividend growth is keeping dividends as a manageable percentage of net income, known as the payout ratio. A low payout ratio makes it easy for companies to increase dividends without exhausting profits.
Even some Dividend Aristocrats don't score well by this measure. Stanley Black & Decker (NYSE: SWK ) currently has a payout ratio of more than 260%, but the figure has been artificially inflated by restructuring charges related to the recent merger of Black & Decker and Stanley Works. Integrys Energy (NYSE: TEG ) , on the other hand, has had payout ratio problems since 2008, and even though its earnings have rebounded substantially in the past 12 months, it still paid out all but $7 million of its net income in dividends.
It's convenient to turn to a ready-made list like the Dividend Aristocrats to help you come up with investment ideas. But don't simply take being on the list as a recommendation in itself. Often, you'll find stocks on lists that don't have the characteristics you really want.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger believes in investors' inalienable rights. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool's disclosure policy declares independence from bias.