2020 has been a rough year for income investors, as the COVID-19 crisis has forced many companies to cut or suspend their dividends. However, companies with more resilient businesses and stronger cash flows are still raising their dividends throughout the crisis to reward patient investors.
1. Cisco Systems
Cisco is the world's largest manufacturer of network routers and switches. That's a slow-growth business, but it generates stable free cash flow (FCF) to feed its buybacks and dividends.
In fiscal 2020, which ended on July 25, Cisco spent 59% of its FCF on $6 billion in dividends and $2.6 billion in buybacks. It pays a forward dividend yield of 3.1%, and it's raised that payout annually for eight straight years.
Cisco's revenue declined annually over the past three quarters, mainly due to slower orders from enterprise campus, data center, and service provider customers. Its loss of orders from China amid the trade war and COVID-19 disruptions exacerbated the pain.
Yet cost-cutting measures and big buybacks buoyed Cisco's adjusted earnings growth positive throughout that downturn. It also continued to buy smaller companies to strengthen its higher-growth security business.
Cisco's balancing act hasn't attracted many bulls, and the stock remains slightly down for the year. However, the stock's low forward P/E of 16, its high yield, and its consistent buybacks should limit its downside potential until the network upgrade cycle accelerates again.
AT&T is one of the largest telecom and media companies in America. Its sprawling business includes its wireless and wireline businesses, pay TV services, and Time Warner's media assets.
AT&T has raised its dividend for 36 straight years, making it a Dividend Aristocrat, meaning it's maintained that streak for at least 25 years. It pays a forward yield of 6.9%, and recently reiterated its support for that dividend, with a target payout ratio in the low 60s. It also suspended its buybacks earlier this year to protect its dividend and reduce its debt.
AT&T was already struggling with a slowdown in its wireless business and an ongoing loss of pay TV subscribers when the pandemic started. The crisis exacerbated those problems by shutting down retailers and disrupting WarnerMedia's production of new shows and films. Those headwinds caused AT&T's stock to decline more than 20% this year.
However, new 5G phones, the consolidation of its streaming services, and the resumption of WarnerMedia's media projects could all eventually restart AT&T's growth. Until then, AT&T's high yield and low forward P/E ratio of 9 should set a floor under the stock.
3. Kimberly Clark
Kimberly Clark, the maker of Kleenex, Cottonelle toilet paper, Huggies diapers, and other paper-based products, has raised its dividend annually for 47 straight years. It currently pays a forward dividend yield of 2.7%, and spent just 51% of its FCF on that payout over the past 12 months.
Unlike Cisco and AT&T, Kimberly Clark isn't struggling with near-term headwinds. Instead, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed shoppers to stock up on Kimberly Clark's products, and the company expects its organic sales to rise 4%-5% this year as its adjusted earnings grow 7%-10%. Robust demand for its consumer-facing products should offset weaker sales of its business-facing "K-C Professional" products, which are exposed to business closures, for the foreseeable future.
Kimberly Clark's stable growth throughout the crisis supported the stock's year-to-date gain of about 15%. The stock isn't cheap at 21 times forward earnings, but its insulation from the COVID-19 crisis arguably justifies that premium.
However, the pandemic will slightly prolong the restructuring plan it launched in 2018. It originally intended to implement all those cost-cutting, divestment, and growth initiatives by the end of 2020, but the crisis will extend the plan to 2021.