It can rightly be said that dividends are the Holy Grail for long-term investors. Although dividend-paying stocks have handily outperformed their non-dividend-paying peers over the long run, there are plenty of other reasons for investors to be enamored with dividend stocks.
For starters, dividend stocks are often a beacon of profitability. Think of it this way: The management team and/or board of a company isn't going to approve the continued sharing of corporate profits if the outlook doesn't suggest continued profitability and growth. A company that's willing to share a percentage of its profits likely has a time-tested business model, which comes in particularly handy when the stock market is volatile.
Secondly, dividends can provide a sense of calm during inevitable market corrections. Though dividend payouts alone won't necessarily save your portfolio from short-term paper losses, they can certainly provide a calming effect by helping to hedge your losses.
Dividend stocks are also excellent wealth builders thanks to dividend reinvestment plans. Most brokerages allow you to reinvest your payouts in more shares of dividend-paying stock, thus creating a compounding effect whereby you own more stock and receive a larger payout over time. This is a commonly used strategy by top money managers to build wealth for their clients.
Apple pays a huge dividend, but it's not the biggest
In recent years, few stocks have been more attractive from an income perspective than technology kingpin Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). Apple has an exceptionally loyal customer base thanks to its iPhone -- Apple likely sold more than 215 million iPhones in 2018 -- and it generates an insane amount of free cash flow each year. This allowed Apple to build its cash position (which includes cash that was held overseas and was thus not as easily accessible) to more than $250 billion at one point.
As Apple's cash position grew in the early portion of the decade, calls for ways to return some of this capital to shareholders were made. Thus was born Apple's first quarterly dividend in 17 years in July 2012. Initially a nearly $0.38-per-share payout (this takes into account the company's 7-for-1 stock split in April 2014), Apple is now divvying out $0.73 per share each quarter. Taking into account its 4.73 billion outstanding shares, based on its third-quarter filing, Apple is paying out $13.81 billion a year to investors.
Amazingly, though, this isn't the top payout in the market. In fact, it's not even second or third. There are three brand-name businesses that are currently paying out more than Apple's $13.81 billion a year to shareholders.
AT&T: $14.86 billion in dividend payouts
The true king of all dividend-paying stocks at the moment is telecom giant AT&T (NYSE:T), which, following its most recent dividend increase and weighted average outstanding share count as of the end of the third quarter, is on pace to pay out $14.86 billion over the next year.
AT&T is an absolute powerhouse in the telecom industry, with a substantial share of the U.S. wireless market, and the expectation of stronger top-line growth in the years that lie ahead on the heels of the 5G wireless network rollout. As 5G becomes the standard in the U.S. by the early portion of the next decade, it should encourage smartphone users to upgrade to newer, faster devices. These data-hungry consumers will help AT&T capture higher-margin revenue.
AT&T also benefits from the completion of its Time Warner acquisition, which brought the CNN, TNT, and TBS networks into the fold. These popular networks are likely to act like dangling carrots for indecisive consumers, and they should provide a healthy boost to AT&T's video subscriber numbers in the years that lie ahead.
Having averaged $36.5 billion annually in operating cash flow over the past five years, AT&T's superior dividend is very much sustainable.
Microsoft: $14.12 billion in dividend payouts
Another tech giant you shouldn't be surprised to see ahead of Apple in the dividend column is Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). Based on the company's 7.673 billion diluted outstanding shares as of the end of the fiscal first quarter, Microsoft is on track to pay out $14.12 billion in dividends over the next year.
When we're talking about Microsoft, we're looking at a tale of two companies. On one hand, there's Microsoft's personal computing, productivity, and business process operations, which comprise its dominant Windows operating system, its commercial Office products, search advertising revenue, gaming revenue, and its Surface tablet sales, to name a few components. Even with Windows OEM revenue in the low single digits, as expected, personal computing sales soared 15% in the first quarter. High-margin gaming revenue skyrocketed 44% in the latest quarter, with advertising revenue, excluding traffic acquisition costs, jumping 17%.
The other side of Microsoft that some folks might forget about is its next-generation cloud platform. Sales from server products and cloud services rocketed higher by 28% in Q1 2019, with its Azure revenue growing by 76%. As enterprises move their data away from hardware and into the cloud, Microsoft's Azure should continue to pick up steam.
Like AT&T, Microsoft has generated a ton of operating cash flow over the past five years ($35.2 billion per year), which suggests that not only is its dividend sustainable, but it's likely to head even higher.
ExxonMobil: $13.87 billion in dividend payouts
Finally, integrated oil and gas juggernaut ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) edges out Apple ever so slightly in the dividend department, with $13.87 billion in aggregate payouts expected to head shareholders' way over the next year.
Arguably the top reason to buy into ExxonMobil is the company's diverse operations. Aside from the onshore oil operations most folks are familiar with, it's also involved in offshore drilling, has assets in the Canadian oil sands, drills for natural gas, and utilizes its downstream operations to refine petroleum products. Essentially, this means that ExxonMobil can take advantage of the rising price of oil and can also hedge its business via its downstream operations if crude oil prices are declining. It's tough to put a dent in its armor.
As my colleague Reuben Gregg Brewer points out, ExxonMobil also has a reasonably low amount of long-term debt relative to its peers. Considering that the oil and gas industry is very capital intensive, for both maintenance and exploration purposes, ExxonMobil's superior financial flexibility is another reason behind its stability when crude pricing is anything but stable.
Even with oil prices dipping considerably over the past four years, ExxonMobil has managed an average of $33.6 billion in annual operating cash flow since 2013. In other words, there's a very good chance ExxonMobil's dividend is here to stay.
Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Sean Williams owns shares of AT&T. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.