Dividend growth investors usually focus their attention on companies with long and solid track records of consistent dividend increases. The same goes for dividend growth indexes and the funds that track those indexes; dividend growth history is typically the main criterion for stock selection.
However, investing is about the windshield, not the rearview mirror, and these companies are excellent candidates for a dividend growth portfolio even if they don't have long and immaculate track records of dividend increases.
Companies change and mature over time. Once a business has reached a certain size and generates more cash than it needs to reinvest in its operations, it can implement an active and sustainable dividend policy. While it may not have a long track record of rising dividends, that doesn't mean the company can't sustain growing distributions for years to come.
With a market capitalization near $450 billion Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) has clearly matured over the last decade. The company generated more than $43.7 billion in cash flows from operations over the last nine months, and investments in fixed assets absorbed only $6.2 billion of that money. This allowed Apple to allocate $7.8 billion to dividends and $17.9 billion to share repurchases in the last three quarters.
Apple may no longer be able to generate the explosive growth rates it delivered when the iPhone was in its initial growth stages, but Wall Street analysts were pleasantly surprised after learning that the company sold a record-breaking 9 million new iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c devices in the first three days following their launch.
Apple's brand power and differentiated image are enormously valuable assets, allowing the company to generate superior profitability and fat cash flows for shareholders. The stock is yielding 2.6% at current prices, and Apple's fundamental strength will most likely generate the resources to continue raising dividends for years to come.
Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO ) , being the leading supplier of data networking equipment and software, is in the right place to benefit from growing connectivity needs on a global scale. Investors are feeling cautious about the stock lately, as management provided disappointing guidance during the last earnings release and the company announced that it's reducing its workforce by 4,000 jobs in order to reduce costs.
But the recent negativity may provide a buying opportunity for long-term investors to buy a solid stock at an opportunistic price, as Cisco has the scale and brand recognition to continue leading the high-end segment of the market and keeping low-cost competitors at bay.
The company started paying dividends in 2011, so it's not yet a popular holding among dividend-growth investors. But the stock is yielding 2.8%, the payout ratio is at a comfortably low 31.6%, and Cisco has a healthy balance sheet, so the company has what it takes to build a long track record of dividend increases over the coming years.
Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) had to cut its dividends to only $0.05 per share during the financial crisis, which is why the bank is excluded from most of the dividend growth indexes that focus on past performance. The financial industry is quite complex, but the last financial meltdown was arguably as hard as it can get for the sector, and Wells Fargo is an exceptionally well-run bank.
The company is known for its simple and traditional approach to the business, lending money to deserving clients rather than getting into the risky and complicated financial transactions that sometimes causes so much trouble among its competitors.
That's why Wells Fargo emerged from the crisis in a much better shape than other big banks -- and that's also the reason why it deserves some serious consideration from dividend-growth investors. Wells Fargo pays a 2.8% dividend yield and has a dividend payout ratio of only 26.5% of earnings.
Ford (NYSE: F ) reinstated its dividends in 2012 and doubled its payments to $0.10 per share this year. The auto industry is notoriously tough and competitive, but Ford has made an impressive recovery over the last years, and it's firing on all cylinders.
Ford reported remarkably strong sales figures for August. Sales of the F-Series totaled just more than 71,000, which represented a 22% increase over August 2012 and was the highest August reading since 2006. The Fusion had a strong month, with 24,653 vehicles sold, and Ford's small cars also did very well, with a 30% increase to combined sales of 30,148 vehicles.
Ford has always been an undisputed leader in light trucks; the F-Series has been America's best-selling vehicle for 36 consecutive years. But over the last years the company has dramatically improved the quality of its smaller vehicles, and it's showing up in sales reports.
This iconic American automaker is yielding 2.3% in dividends and has a safe payout ratio of 19.1%. The industry is quite cyclical, but so long as the company continues moving in the right direction, the road looks clear in terms of future dividend growth.
When selecting dividend-growth stocks, focusing solely on past performance can sometimes mean missing some truly interesting opportunities. Companies like Apple, Cisco, Wells Fargo, and Ford are not among the most popular dividend-growth names, but they could easily be considered as such a few years down the road.
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