With interest rates still hovering near record lows while overall dividend yields are similarly weak, it would be easy to eschew dividend stocks in this article -- even for income-minded investors. The S&P 500's average dividend yield right now is a paltry 1.6%, barely outpacing the country's current inflation rate of 1.2%. A bunch of popular stocks aren't even paying out that much.
But before you dismiss a stock because its dividend yield is just too low, take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Several of these low-yield names are actually growth stocks in the habit of improving relatively modest payouts in a big way.
For instance, Apple (AAPL -1.29%), Starbucks (SBUX 1.56%), and A.O. Smith (AOS 0.06%) are surprisingly compelling income names not because they're dishing out huge dividends right now, but because their current dividends could double within the next few years. We know this sort of payout growth is possible since each name has already doubled its dividends over the course of the past five years. Let's find out a bit more about these three great dividend stocks.
1. Low-yield Apple sweetens its pie
Dividend yield: 0.6%
Yes, Apple pays a dividend. It has since 2012, resuming the payouts it stopped making way back in 1995. That's when the company started to become so flush with iPhone-driven riches that it (literally) didn't know what it could meaningfully do with its huge and growing cash hoard. Apple also initiated a generous stock buyback program at that time as a way of putting those funds to work.
It's not a huge dividend, mind you. The current yield of 0.6% is a not-so-subtle reminder that this consumer technology giant is first and foremost a growth name. Shareholders should be growth-minded first, even if they intend to pocket the dividend rather than reinvest their payouts in more shares.
But a stake in Apple is a position that can mature into a better dividend-paying holding over time, while also offering long-term growth prospects that drive the income that ultimately drives the dividend. The present quarterly payout of $0.205 per share is more than twice the split-adjusted quarterly payout of $0.095 per share when the company reinitiated its dividend eight years ago. In fact, Apple's shift toward more digital services and less reliance on hardware sales better lends itself to dividend payments. App sales, subscription revenue, and digital content translate into predictable, recurring, and higher-margin revenue, providing a cushion of sorts for its payout.
2. Starbucks' expansion plan paves the way for continued dividend growth
Dividend yield: 1.8%
Coffeehouse chain Starbucks has also more than doubled its dividend over the course of the past five years, pumping it up from a quarterly per-share payout of $0.20 at this point of 2015 to $0.45 now.
Granted, this was a significant growth period for the company. Five years ago, Starbucks was only operating 23,043 locations, versus its 32,660 locales up and running now. Per-share earnings growth outpaced its dividend growth during this period too, but only by virtue of its proverbial head start. Last year's pre-COVID profit of $2.92 a share was roughly twice the stock's dividend of $1.49, more or less matching the proportion of historical profits that have been consumed by payouts. Given that there's got to be a theoretical limit to the number of coffee shops the world needs, it would be easy to doubt the company's dividend growth can continue on as it is.
Except, it can -- with a dramatically different approach.
CEO Kevin Johnson didn't flesh out every detail during the company's recent Investor Day event, but he did lay out a plausible growth plan that calls for 55,000 worldwide Starbucks locations by 2030.
It sounds optimistic on the surface, but it's a goal that's hardly out of reach given the nature of many of these future stores. Rather than full-blown, stand-alone, drive-to locations, Johnson is envisioning walk-through Starbucks that are well suited for metropolitan areas. In the meantime, the company intends to use artificial intelligence to maximize the efficiency of its stores. That impact could be felt sooner than later, too. Starbucks is calling for a big earnings rebound in the coming year, and modeling between 10% and 12% per-share earnings growth for 2023 and 2024. That progress would leave plenty of room for significant dividend growth.
3. This isn't the A.O. Smith you think you know
Dividend yield: 1.9%
Finally, like Starbucks and Apple, A.O. Smith isn't going to wow anyone with its current dividend yield of just under 1.9%. It's also seemingly a name without much room for major growth. The company makes water heaters and water treatment solutions, which are always marketable but rarely thrilling.
There's a balance of growth, value, income growth, and consistency here, but that deserves a closer look.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on A.O. Smith, mostly presenting logistics challenges rather than crimping demand. Even so, it's holding up surprisingly well. Third-quarter sales were up 4% year over year, starting to offset the Q1 and Q2 headwind. Per-share profits of $0.65 for the quarter ending in September not only topped estimates, but they came in better than the year-ago figure of $0.53 too. Year to date, total earnings per share of $1.38 are off by a forgivable 17%, and the top line is only off to the tune of 8%. That's still more than enough to cover the $0.72 per share worth of dividends it has dished out over the course of those three quarters, and analysts are calling for a pretty quick earnings rebound this year. Oh, and by the way, the most recently declared dividend of $0.26 per share is nearly 200% higher than the split-adjusted quarterly dividend of $0.095 the company was paying just five years back.
This consistent fiscal success is evidence that A.O. Smith is a well-managed industrial company that offers relatively safe growth potential, even to investors more interested in current income.