All 30 of the Dow Jones Industrial Average's (DJINDICES:^DJI) members pay a dividend. Their yields range from 0.8% to 5.2%, with the median payout yield hovering around 2.7%.
Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) yield has been in third place for most of the last year, usually a fair distance behind the two telecoms that sit on top of the heap. But Intel was eclipsed by two other Dow stocks in the past week, pushing the chip giant down to fifth place.
The third-richest Dow dividend today belongs to medical titan Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and its 3.5% yield. Oil and gas producer Chevron (NYSE:CVX) also sports a 3.5% yield, a mere rounding error behind Pfizer. Intel isn't hopelessly far behind at 3.4%, but it's nevertheless a significant slip.
Like all good stories, this one doesn't rest on a single plot point. Instead, it's a complex tale with lots of moving parts.
Let's start at the top
First off, Intel shares have simply outperformed Pfizer and Chevron in 2014.
All three stocks are trailing the Dow year to date, but Intel gets closer to the blue-chip index's overall performance than its new dividend suzerains. Intel's stock has beaten Chevron by nearly 14% over the past year.
High share prices lead to low effective dividend yields, and vice versa. It's a nice problem to have, but Intel's relative strength has certainly given these Dow neighbors a hand in exceeding the chipmaker's effective yield.
The company is finally showing some muscle in the mobile market, and it never really lost its grip of the high-margin server chip field. Investors are taking heart, hoping that Intel will indeed survive the shift to a chiefly mobile computing future. Not too much heart, mind you -- the stock is beating the Dow recently, but not by much of a margin. But relative strength is all that matters for our dividend comparison purposes today.
That's about half the story
Intel's fall from the medal podium isn't 100% about share price movements, though. You could say that Intel had a chance to stay on top, but chose not to take it.
Here's how these three dividend policies have developed over the last two years:
That blue line at the bottom in not some decorative element of the charting template. It's Intel flatlining its payouts for two years, while both Chevron and Pfizer increased their dividend checks by more than 18% each.
The chip wrangler used to boost payouts by a respectable amount every year, save for a break during the 2008-2009 economic crisis. In fact, Intel has a history of outperforming both Pfizer and Chevron when it comes to dividend increases.
But all things considered, these three dividend policies have now evened out from a five-year perspective.
Intel has been sinking a ton of its operating cash flow into big infrastructure projects in recent years. Over the last four quarters, the company spent $11.2 billion of its $20 billion in operating cash flow on capital expenses, mostly to expand and upgrade manufacturing facilities for the next chip technology node. Only $4.5 billion was put into dividend checks, and a measly $850 million went toward share buybacks. If that sounds like a lot, consider that Intel pumped $12.5 billion into buybacks in 2012.
But is that a valid excuse?
Sure, Pfizer's massive operating cash flow and lean capital expenses leave plenty of room for dividend increases. But Chevron has been growing its dividend checks even though the headroom is gone.
The oil giant's capital expenses currently exceed its cash from operations. Chevron is dipping into cash reserves and other capital sources to finance its rising payouts, and more than doubled its long-term debt over the last two years. These trends may not be sustainable in the long run, but Chevron is doing it anyhow. Meanwhile, Intel is playing its rich cash flow with an exceedingly gentle hand, leaving investors longing for a return to dividend growth.
As an Intel investor myself, I'm frustrated at the lack of dividend growth. If there's a secret to dividend investing, that would be in the power of reliable long-term payout growth. Those annual upticks may not look like much individually, but they add up to big bucks over the years.
For example, simply owning Intel shares over the last decade would have been worse than simply shoving that cash under your pillow. But with a dividend reinvestment plan, you'd have a 24% gain instead. Doing the same thing in a Dow tracker would have yielded an even larger payoff, but the point still stands: dividend growth is important.
On the other hand, I'd feel queasy about owning Chevron right now. The company is aiming for a healthier balance between payouts and cash flow, but in the meantime, Chevron's debt load is exploding. And what if that perfect balance never comes? If Chevron ever needs to reduce its quarterly payouts, the backlash from disappointed investors will be swift and severe.
So if I had to pick one of these three stocks for a dividend-focused portfolio right now, Pfizer would be it.
The drug developer has plenty of headroom for further dividend growth, and is at no risk for payout cuts. The company has actually been paying down debt over the last five years instead of taking on more of it. Meanwhile, those quarterly checks have grown by 62%.
That's not an official buy recommendation for Pfizer, but the stock seems ripe for further analysis. I'm placing a thumbs-up rating on Pfizer in our Motley Fool CAPS system right now, which gives me a chance to follow the stock more closely without taking financial risks.
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