Big pharma stocks have long been favorites for dividend-seeking investors, and for good reason. Major pharmaceutical companies typically generate strong cash flow, which allows them to pay high dividend yields for decades.

The great cash flow that enables big pharma companies to fund those attractive dividends stems from a stable of drugs that make lots of money while they enjoy patent exclusivity. Even when the drugs lose patent exclusivity, they can continue contributing substantially to the companies' bottom lines. While big pharma companies must continually reinvest into research and development to find the next generation of successful products, many also look to return some of the money they make to shareholders in the form of dividends.

AbbVie (NYSE:ABBV), Novartis (NYSE:NVS), and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) have balanced the reinvestment into new products with rewarding shareholders with solid dividends exceptionally well. Here's why these are three top big pharma dividend stocks you can buy right now. 

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The first thing investors like to know about a dividend stock is its yield. AbbVie doesn't disappoint in that category, with its dividend currently yielding close to 3%. That's actually on the low end of the range for AbbVie's yield in recent years, but only because the stock has soared around 50% so far in 2017.

There are big pharma stocks with higher yields than AbbVie (we'll soon discuss a couple of them), but few have the track record of dividend increases AbbVie does. Counting the period in which it was still part of parent company Abbott Labs, AbbVie has raised its dividend for an impressive 45 consecutive years. In the five years since being spun off by Abbott, the company's dividend payout has increased by 77%.

But the past isn't as important to investors as the future. AbbVie also appears to be in better position to keep increasing its dividend in coming years than many of its peers. The drugmaker currently uses less than half of its free cash flow to pay dividends. AbbVie should also be able to increase its earnings and free cash flow significantly over the next several years.

The company's biggest moneymaker, autoimmune-disease drug Humira, should be safe from biosimilar competition through early 2023. Sales for Imbruvica are growing so quickly that the drug is projected to become the No. 4 top-selling cancer drug in the world by 2022. AbbVie also has a pipeline loaded with promising candidates in multiple therapeutic categories.


Swiss pharma company Novartis pays out a dividend that currently yields close to 3.3%. That's near the midpoint of the drugmaker's yield over the past several years.

Novartis has increased its dividend every year since its formation in 1996 with the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz. In the subsequent period, the company's dividend payout has risen by 550%. Over the past few years, though, Novartis' annual dividend increases have been relatively small.

Investors shouldn't have to worry much about the ability of Novartis to keep the dividends flowing. The drugmaker uses roughly two-thirds of its free cash flow to fund its dividend program. Novartis ranks as one of the most profitable big pharma companies in the world. And although it has seen earnings declines in recent years, things are looking better for the future.

In August, Novartis became the first pharma company to win U.S. regulatory approval for a CAR-T (chimeric antigen T-cell) drug with Kymriah. CAR-T is one of the hottest areas in cancer treatment -- and Novartis stands as a leader in the field. The company also claims a pipeline with more than 200 clinical programs, one of the deepest development programs in the industry. 

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Pfizer boasts one of the highest dividend yields among big pharma stocks, with its yield currently at more than 3.6%. The drugmaker's yield has rarely gone below 3% over the past decade.

For the much of its history, Pfizer also had a solid track record of annual dividend increases. Its streak was broken in 2009 as the company struggled in the midst of the major financial crisis and slashed its dividend. Since then, though, Pfizer has raised its dividend every year.

More importantly, Pfizer appears to be in good shape to keep dividend increases coming. The company uses around 57% of its free cash flow to pay out dividends. Wall Street analysts think Pfizer will grow earnings by an average of 6% annually over the next five years, significantly higher than the last five years.

There are several reasons to expect the analysts' optimism is well founded. Pfizer's current lineup includes big winners like cancer drug Ibrance and blood thinner Eliquis. The company also ranks third among big pharma companies in investing in research and development. That investment could pay off in a major way: Pfizer expects its pipeline to generate between 25 and 30 regulatory approvals over the next five years, with up to 15 of those having blockbuster potential.

Best pick

If you're dead-set on getting a high yield, Pfizer is probably the best big pharma stock for you. However, I think AbbVie is the best big pharma dividend stock overall.

Even though its yield is lower than those of some of its peers, AbbVie seems likely to grow its dividend faster than either Novartis or Pfizer. I wouldn't be surprised for its yield to surpass Novartis' in the not-too-distant future. But the main reason I think AbbVie is the top pick of the three is its growth potential.

Because of its continued momentum for Humira and Imbruvica and its strong pipeline, AbbVie will probably grow earnings more than twice as fast as Novartis and Pfizer will over the next few years. I fully expect that earnings growth to translate to superior returns. With that kind of growth and higher dividends likely on the way as well, AbbVie looks like the best big pharma dividend stock of all.

Keith Speights owns shares of AbbVie and Pfizer. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.