The Dividend Aristocrat index is an elite group of stocks. To be considered for membership, a publicly traded company must establish a 25-year track record of consecutive dividend increases. Even some of the best dividend stocks don't get to this point -- recessions, pandemics, and other factors often force excellent dividend companies to pump the brakes on dividend increases.
One stock that isn't quite there yet but is well on its way is Digital Realty Trust (NYSE:DLR). This real estate investment trust, or REIT, which owns and operates data centers, has increased its dividend for 15 consecutive years (including in 2020), and there's no reason to believe the streak is at risk of ending anytime soon.
Digital Realty Trust in a nutshell
Digital Realty is a massive REIT that owns and operates data center properties. The company owns 284 data centers all around the world and is one of the largest REITs of any kind in the world. Digital Realty's mission is to become the only global data center REIT serving the entire spectrum of customers.
If you aren't familiar, think of data centers as the physical homes of the internet. When you access a cloud-based software program, upload a photo to social media, or stream a video, all of that data has to physically live somewhere. And that's where data centers come in. These are purpose-built facilities that allow businesses to house servers and networking equipment in a secure and reliable environment. Top customers of Digital Realty read like a "who's who" of tech giants -- IBM, Facebook, Oracle, and Uber are all in the company's top 20 customer list, to name a few examples.
Why invest in data center real estate?
Demand for data centers has grown exponentially over the past decade or so, and there's no reason to believe this is going to change anytime soon. The amount of data flowing around the globe continues to grow, and with the gradual rollout of 5G technology and the continuing rise in connected devices, this could even accelerate.
Just to name a few examples, the autonomous-vehicle market is expected to grow at a 37% annualized rate through at least 2025 (autonomous vehicles have a huge need for data), the artificial intelligence market is expected to grow to $90 billion in size by 2025 from $17 billion today, and the number of "Internet of Things" connected devices has more than tripled over the past four years alone.
Virtual and augmented reality is forecast to explode in the coming years, becoming a $193 billion market by 2022 ($20 billion last year). And the stay-at-home and remote work economy of 2020 likely accelerated all of these trends. There was a point in April when Digital Realty was the only stock in my portfolio that was higher for the year, and this is why.
Recent data center market activity shows that growth is still very much alive. In North America, the market is absorbing data center inventory at nearly triple the rate of new construction.
Will it become a Dividend Aristocrat?
Digital Realty needs another 10 years of consecutive dividend increases to join the Dividend Aristocrats. While there's a lot that can happen in 10 years, I can't see any likely scenario where it doesn't get there. The company is only paying out about 70% of its core funds from operations (FFO, the REIT version of earnings) as dividends now, and with the long-tailed growth trends, it shouldn't have any shortage of available cash for dividend increases in the foreseeable future.