There's no question that growth stocks are getting all the attention on Wall Street right now. But when push comes to shove, growth stocks have historically taken a back seat to dividend stocks over the long run.

Back in 2013, J.P. Morgan Asset Management released a report that compared the average annual return for stocks that initiated and grew their payout between 1972 and 2012 to the average annual return of stocks that didn't pay dividends over this same time frame. The results showed a near-quintupling in average annual return for the dividend-paying stocks relative to stocks that paid no dividend (9.5% vs. 1.6%), and a 19-fold aggregate outperformance over four decades.

A businessperson counting a stack of one hundred dollar bills in their hands.

Image source: Getty Images.

This data really shouldn't surprise anyone. Dividend-paying stocks are almost always profitable, time-tested businesses that have navigated a number of economic downturns. The simple fact that a company is sharing a percentage of its profits with investors is almost always a testament to the confidence a management team has in their company's long-term growth outlook.

But not all dividend stocks are created equally. Among the hundreds of publicly traded companies doling out a dividend today, two special groups stand out. First are the Dividend Aristocrats. These are S&P 500-listed companies that have raised their base annual payout for at least 25 consecutive years.

The second and lesser-known group of special dividend stocks consists of publicly listed companies that have paid an uninterrupted dividend for longer than any living person. While these companies may not increase their payouts every year like the Dividend Aristocrats, income seekers have come to count on these stocks for quarterly or annual income in the same way they look to the East for the sunrise each morning.

An hourglass next to stacks of coins and cash bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

The following 15 stocks have been paying an uninterrupted quarterly dividend for 125 or more consecutive years: 

  • York Water (YORW -0.41%): 204 consecutive years
  • Bank of Montreal: 191 years
  • Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS 1.08%): 187 years
  • Toronto-Dominion Bank: 163 years
  • Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce: 152 years
  • Royal Bank of Canada: 150 years
  • Stanley Black & Decker: 143 years
  • BCE: 139 years
  • ExxonMobil: 138 years
  • Eli Lilly: 135 years
  • UGI Corp: 135 years
  • Johnson Controls: 133 years
  • Procter & Gamble (PG -0.10%): 129 years
  • Coca-Cola (KO -0.14%): 127 years
  • Colgate-Palmolive: 125 years

What characteristics stand out among these time-tested businesses? Let's take a closer look.

A bank teller handing cash back to a customer.

Image source: Getty Images.

Holy Canadian bank dividends, Batman!

Over the past 13 years, U.S. bank dividends have been all over the map. The Great Recession caused many of our biggest banks to slash or completely halt their payouts, but this wasn't the case for our northern neighbor. According to market historians via BNN Bloomberg, not one of the major Canadian banks has ever cut a dividend payout. 

How is this possible? One answer is the strict regulatory oversight of Canada's major banks by the federal government. Back in the late 1990s, a handful of Canada's major banks proposed merging with one another to better compete on a global scale. However, regulators denied these mergers, citing higher domestic fees and reduced branch counts as negatives. Requiring Canadian banks to remain independent of one another is one reason the industry likely weathered the 2007-2009 economic downturn so well. 

Canadian banks are also strong because of their avoidance of risky investments. Canada's major banks have predominantly stuck with the bread-and-butter growth driver of the industry: growing deposits and outstanding loans.

Currently, Bank of Nova Scotia (also known as Scotiabank) offers the juiciest yield of the bunch at 6.3%. Shares are down 24% year to date with coronavirus fears weighing on the industry. Yet Scotiabank's payout ratio is only about 50% of this year's forecast earnings per share, leaving little doubt that this extraordinary payout is sustainable.

A person filling up a glass with water from the kitchen faucet.

Image source: Getty Images.

Utilities offer big-time income utility

Boring companies are often great sources of steady dividend income, so it's no surprise that a handful of utility stocks made the list. Regulated gas utility UGI, which is also behind AmeriGas Propane, is a company some folks might know. But say the name York Water to an investor, and you'll almost certainly get a deer-in-the-headlights look.

York Water is a small water and wastewater utility that covers 48 municipalities in two Pennsylvania counties. It has a market cap of $568 million, trades about 38,000 shares daily, and is the greatest dividend stock you've never heard of. Its yield of 1.7% isn't going to turn many heads, but the fact that it's been paying an uninterrupted dividend for 204 years (since 1816) is absolutely phenomenal. Within the U.S., the next-closest uninterrupted dividend-paying stock trails York by over six decades (Stanley Black & Decker).

The beauty of utility stocks is that investors know exactly what they're buying into. Consumer demand for water, electricity, and natural gas doesn't change much, whether the economy is booming or in a recession.

Furthermore, most utilities are regulated, which is a fancy way of saying that utilities need an OK from state-level public utility commissions before they can raise rates. Having regulated operations means little or no exposure to potentially volatile wholesale pricing for electricity or natural gas.

Long story short, companies like York Water produce transparent and predictable cash flow, resulting in rock-solid payouts.

A farmer in overalls drinking from a Coca-Cola bottle.

Image source: Coca-Cola.

Brand-name and basic-need goods companies are great income sources

Well-known brand-name or basic-need good companies can yield a consistent payout for shareholders.

For example, Coca-Cola has doled out an uninterrupted dividend for 127 years and has increased its base annual payout for 58 consecutive years. This makes Coke a Dividend Aristocrat, as well.

Coca-Cola has one of the most recognized brands in the world, and it's historically forged connections with consumers. Coke has holiday tie-ins, plenty of celebrity ambassadors, and has not been shy about advertising digitally or at the point-of-sale. In terms of geography, Coca-Cola operates in all but two countries worldwide (North Korea and Cuba).

Another instance of a brand-name company piling up the payouts to investors is Procter & Gamble. P&G has been paying out an uninterrupted dividend for 129 years, and has been able to do so thanks to its highly diverse line of basic-need products. No matter how the economy is performing, consumers will still need toothpaste, detergent, and toilet paper. This demand predictability is responsible for Procter & Gamble's 64-year (and counting) streak of base annual payout increases.