Why GE's Dividend Is One of the Dow's Best

Source: Flickr/Jeffrey Turner

Long-term investors buy shares of General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) for many reasons: its innovative culture, industry diversification, worldwide exposure, and its storied dividend payment.

After a century of consistent dividends, GE still funnels extra cash into shareholders' pockets every quarter without fail. Not many companies can attest to that. And if they can, odds are you'll find them in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) . GE is the only original Dow member standing today, so how does it measure up with its contemporary Dow peers in terms of rewarding investors with cash? Let's take a closer look.

The drumbeat of dividends
As I pointed out after GE's fourth-quarter results, "the General'" has marched to a steady beat of rising dividend payments in the recent past. As CEO Jeffrey Immelt stated in last year's annual report, "We like GE to have a high dividend yield, which is appealing to the majority of our investors."

So far, GE has put its money where its mouth is. Last month, the conglomerate hiked its dividend for the sixth time since 2010. Over that period, the company's total annual dividend payment has grown by 62.5%, from $4.8 billion to $7.8 billion per year.

Clearly, GE's hopped on the dividend bandwagon, but that wagon's chock-full of die-hard dividend payers. Here at the Motley Fool, we've pointed out time and again why both companies and shareholders are enamored by dividends, due in part to historically low interest rates.

As a result, for a company's dividend to truly stand out from the pack, it needs to have a couple of things going for it: a relatively high yield, and a history of dividend raises. To get a sense of how GE measures up, let's survey the field in each category.

First off, the dividend yield measures the potency of the cash payments for shareholders, calculated as dividends per share divided by the company share price. The chart below reveals the 10 top Dow dividend yields based on data from the last 12 months:

While each of the 30 companies in the Dow pays a dividend, some are more inclined than others to shell out that cash. Telecom companies AT&T (NYSE: T  ) and Verizon, for example, take first and second place due to highly predictable cash flows from mobile and fixed-line services, among other reasons described by my colleague Dan Caplinger. Shareholders of pharmaceutical and health care players Merck, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson are also accustomed to large dividend checks.

Meanwhile, chemical giant Dupont and General Electric, two of the longest-lasting dividend payers on the Dow, take fifth and seventh place, respectively. General Electric paid out $0.79 per share in dividends over the past 12 months, translating to a yield of roughly 3.41% based on a share price just shy of $25 as of today.

From a yield perspective, GE deserves a salute as one of the top dividend payers on the Dow index, standing apart from Dow manufacturing counterparts Boeing, Caterpillar, 3M, and United Technologies.

And for a true apples-to-apples comparison, looking at this industry is what really matters. Let's see how GE shakes out in terms of dividend growth against its Dow manufacturing peers.

Manufacturing dividends bounce back
The manufacturing giants of the Dow were all hit hard during the recession. When their end customers felt shaky about the economic outlook, they slashed their budgets for expensive industrial products to the bone. This, in turn, forced some manufacturers to cut their dividends, General Electric included. It was a painful period for long-term shareholders, one that tested their willingness to stick with the stock.

Nevertheless, GE's dividend growth has roared back over the past three years, easily topping the growth at its manufacturing counterparts. GE averaged growth of 19.8%, almost double that of the second-place company, heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar.

To be fair, our sample set is limited to recent years. And GE's ability to deliver payouts to shareholders has been bolstered recently by a rebounding GE Capital segment, which says little about its manufacturing turnaround.

Nevertheless, GE's industrial businesses continue their steady recovery. Combined, they account for more than 65% of company earnings, up from about half in 2008. GE aims to raise that percentage to 70% by 2015. GE Capital is a cash cow for now, but a gradual exit strategy is already in place.

Foolish takeaway
With nearly $90 billion in cash on its balance sheet, GE's not sweating next month's rent or next quarter's dividend. And the company's payout ratio, at about 50% of earnings, means GE's plenty capable of bolstering its dividend in the near future. For income-hungry investors, this Dow stock should whet your appetite in the years to come.

Find the next General Electric
General Electric is a prime example of a stock that made investors rich if they held for decade after decade. Letting your winners run is a strategy that we take seriously, in the spirit of great investors like Warren Buffett. That's why our CEO, legendary investor Tom Gardner, is so adamant about finding the greatest businesses for his ultra-long-term portfolio. He recently isolated his best ideas, and permitted us to reveal "The Motley Fool's 3 Stocks to Own Forever." These picks are free today, so click here now to uncover the three companies we love.


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