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If you like dividend stocks, then you really need to know about the Dividend Aristocrats. These high-profile stocks give most dividend investors exactly what they're looking for: healthy yields and payouts that have grown steadily but consistently over time.
Recently, though, the folks that decide which companies qualify to be Dividend Aristocrats made it a bit easier to make the grade. While adopting new guidelines may dilute the value of being a Dividend Aristocrat somewhat, that doesn't mean that some of the new entrants on the list aren't promising candidates.
Later in this article, I'll take a look at four interesting companies that just recently became Dividend Aristocrats. First, though, let's make sure you're up to speed on what the Aristocrats are and what the change was.
Opening the door
Before the recent changes, the hurdle for becoming a Dividend Aristocrat was extremely high. In order to become an Aristocrat, a stock had to be a member of the S&P 1500 Composite Index, which includes large-cap, mid-cap, and small-cap stocks. More importantly, though, the stock had to have paid increasing dividends every year for at least 25 years.
As you can imagine, that was a pretty hard test to meet. Many stocks don't even pay dividends, so they were obviously out of contention. But even among dividend-paying stocks, many are content to make the same payouts year after year, perhaps occasionally giving their shareholders an increase in income, but not making it a regular event. And finally, even if companies try to boost their payouts on an annual basis, plenty of challenges can prevent them from actually being able to follow through on that promise, as adverse economic conditions can make it very difficult for some companies to find the cash flow to finance a dividend.
The new changes, however, made it slightly easier to qualify. By reducing the minimum streak of annual increases from 25 years to 20 years, 14 new stocks became eligible for Aristocrat status. Although each has its benefits, I think the following four merit special attention.
Aqua America (NYSE: WTR )
Water is rapidly becoming just as important a natural resource as oil, and Aqua America is a big player in making sure people get the water they need. The utility has gone on a long acquisition spree to fuel its growth, and despite continual spending on capital improvements, Aqua America has raised its dividend in 20 consecutive years.
Universal Health Realty Income Trust (NYSE: UHT )
An aging population in the U.S. has made health care infrastructure a major growth industry. Universal Health Realty is a real estate investment trust that focuses on hospitals, surgical and rehab centers, and other health care facilities. The REIT, which yields nearly 6%, boasts a 26-year streak of increasing its dividend payout to investors.
MDU Resources (NYSE: MDU )
This company has a long history as a utility, but with the huge energy boom in the Bakken region, which MDU has historically served, it has become a diversified energy company that also acts as a supplier of building materials tailored toward utilities and other large industrial users. It also boasts an extensive transmission network for electricity and natural gas. But many investors like it because it's been transmitting higher dividends for 21 straight years.
Universal Corp. (NYSE: UVV )
Universal acts as a tobacco wholesaler, buying, processing, packing, and shipping leaf tobacco to manufacturers who then take the tobacco and sell it for their own consumer products. Like many other tobacco-related stocks, Universal has turned its business into a high-yielding enterprise, and it's raised its payout 41 years in a row.
A short-lived Aristocrat?
On the other side of the coin, Avon Products (NYSE: AVP ) is a new Aristocrat, but its tenure on the list could prove short-lived. The company hasn't raised its dividend since February 2011, missing its historical first-quarter boost this year. With the consumer products giant suffering from an ongoing lack of confidence in its business, a dividend hike may well not be in the cards for Avon.
Even with lower standards, the Dividend Aristocrats still command respect among income investors. If anything, the new changes merely highlight promising stocks that should already have been on investors' radar screen.
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