If you are looking for a dividend stock, using a 3% yield hurdle is a pretty low bar. There are a lot of companies that offer that level of yield without needing to take on huge risks. That said, if you're willing to do a little digging, you can do better than that without taking on material extra risk. Three stocks yielding way more than 3% that are worth a deep dive right now are integrated energy Goliath ExxonMobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), diversified midstream major ONEOK, Inc. (NYSE:OKE), and food giant General Mills, Inc. (NYSE:GIS).
1. Turning things around
Exxon offers investors a robust 4% yield. It has increased the dividend every year for the last 36 years, even through tough periods that led peers to pause their increases (or worse). The yield, in fact, is toward the high end of the company's historical range, making now a particularly good time for income-focused investors to take a look at the diversified oil and natural gas giant.
Investors are worried that Exxon's production has been falling for a few years. The declines have been relatively small, in the low single-digits, but the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. However, a long-term plan to fix that is in place and starting to show results. Exxon was able to grow production sequentially in the second half of 2018 on the strength of just one of several major investments (onshore U.S. drilling).
Another concern has been the company's return on capital employed metric, which measures how well Exxon is using shareholder cash. That number has fallen from the head of the pack to the middle. However, as it invests in industry-leading projects, that number should pick up. It's already showing signs of life, going from the low single-digits at the end of 2016 to over 10% by the end of 2018. In other words, Exxon has started to turn the ship.
Now, add in an incredibly low level of leverage (debt makes up less than 10% of the company's capital structure), and there's no reason to question its ability to execute its long-term plan even if oil prices remain volatile. If you can think long term, now is the time to consider Exxon.
2. The shift has been made
Continuing with the energy theme, you should also consider ONEOK. The stock has more than doubled from the lows it reached in late 2016, but it is still offering a yield of roughly 5%. It has increased its dividend annually for 16 consecutive years.
The important background story here is that ONEOK navigated the acquisition of its controlled limited partnership while continuing to reward investors with dividend hikes. Other midstream companies, including industry giant Kinder Morgan, Inc., haven't managed that feat. Rolling up limited partnerships is a trend that has picked up speed, following some regulatory and tax rate changes that make partnerships a less desirable corporate structure as they once were. ONEOK was ahead of that curve and can focus on growing its business, not corporate makeovers.
In addition to that simplifying acquisition, ONEOK has also been working to strengthen its balance sheet. It has reduced leverage materially, even while absorbing its controlled partnership. Debt to EBITDA has now fallen to around 3.6 times, roughly in line with some of the midstream industry's most conservative names, from over 6 times in 2016.
As for the future, ONEOK has plans to spend around $6 billion on growth projects over the next few years. It expects that to support around 10% annual dividend growth through 2021. And it is projecting dividend coverage to be roughly 1.2 times throughout that period, providing ample protection for the payment. ONEOK isn't exactly cheap, but for income investors, it may be well worth the price of admission. Now is as good a time as any to look at the name.
3. A little more risk
Packaged-food giant General Mills is the final name to consider, offering investors a roughly 4% yield. This is not a good choice for risk-averse investors, but for those who can stomach a little near-term uncertainty, it will be worth the effort of a deep dive.
Packaged-food companies have been facing headwinds from a mixture of a consumer shift toward foods considered fresher and healthier and increasing competition from private-label brands. General Mills has not avoided the pain, with the stock down some 35% from its mid-2016 peak. However, shifting customer habits and tough competition aren't new to the industry, and over-100-year-old General Mills has dealt with issues like this before.
The company has been reworking key brands to better serve current taste preferences as well as buying new brands that are more on target with customers (such as Annie's). The turnaround is still a work in progress, which is why the stock is down so much. However, the yield is higher today than it has been in over 20 years. One of the big reasons for this was the debt-fueled acquisition of Blue Buffalo, the leading maker of high-end pet food. Unfortunately, some market watchers believe General Mills overpaid for Blue Buffalo.
This purchase has added a new growth engine to the company's business, helping to offset sales weakness in other areas. However, the added leverage has led General Mills to pause dividend increases until its metrics are back to more normal levels. As for the price it paid, only time will tell if the deal was worth the money. However, General Mills has a long history of successfully managing its portfolio of brands, so there's good reason to believe this deal will work out as well as hoped -- or, at the very least, that the company will manage to muddle through.
Yes, long-term debt jumping 70% because of a single acquisition is worrying. As is the decline in trailing-12-month interest coverage from over eight times to around 4.7 times. But this longtime industry leader is still financially strong, and the asset behind these changes is a category-leading brand. With a history as long and impressive as General Mills, more aggressive income investors should strongly consider giving management the benefit of the doubt, here. It's likely that Wall Street is overhyping the risk. Note, too, that while the dividend hasn't been increased every year, it also hasn't been cut at any point over the last three decades.
Time for more research
Exxon, ONEOK, and General Mills each offer yields well above the 3% threshold. They each have material businesses backed by long histories of success. Conservatively run Exxon is probably the best mix of value and yield. With ONEOK, you'll pay full price, but near-term dividend growth prospects are impressive. And for those with a stomach for more risk, General Mills' big acquisition could be an opportunity to grab an industry-leading name while Wall Street has kicked it to the gutter.