Buying stocks as a retiree can be especially stressful. A younger investor has both the time to recover any losses and the regular income to keep putting money to work. Later in life, when investments are what provide the income, the strategy is often to reduce risk by buying stock in companies with a history of stock price stability and growing dividends.
Unilever (NYSE:UL), 3M (NYSE:MMM), and Southern Company (NYSE:SO) fit that description perfectly. For any investor seeking a stable, reliable company with a history of taking care of shareholders, these three companies have a lot to offer.
Let's find out a bit more about these three stocks for retirees.
1. Unilever: Stable operations and generous dividend
Unilever is a London-based company best known for its portfolio of global consumer brands. The company operates across three primary segments: beauty and personal care, foods and refreshment, and home care. Many people don't know that Dove, Q-Tips, Lipton, and Ben & Jerry's are all under this same corporate umbrella. In fact, Unilever lists 166 brands in total across its segments. That diversification produces something retirees should love -- stability. The predictable nature of sales and profits allows management to pay a healthy dividend of $1.90 per share (annualized) that currently yields 3.4%. The dividend payout was increased by 4% in Q4 of 2020.
The stability also shows up in the share price. The beta -- a measure of how much a stock moves relative to the overall market -- is 0.1 for Unilever. That means that when the broader market goes up or down 10%, shareholders can expect about a 1% move in the stock. Shareholders might not get the benefit of a huge run-up in stock prices, but they're also protected from the downside while collecting consistent dividends. In 2020, the company reported 1.9% sales growth and 4.1% higher earnings per share. That slow growth shouldn't worry retirees. Unilever only pays a little more than half of its cash flow out as dividends, leaving plenty of room for steady increases in the future.
2. 3M: More than 62 years of consistent dividend payout growth
For conservative exposure to the global economy, retirees can't do much better than 3M. The multinational conglomerate applies science to develop products for dozens of industries. Management reports its results in four segments: safety and industrial, transportation and electronics, healthcare, and consumer. The company may be best known for developing Post-It Notes, but its sales also come from a diverse product lineup that includes adhesives, personal protective equipment, automotive and aerospace electronics, and health information systems.
Sales in 2020 were flat compared to 2019, and the company expects them to grow 5% to 8% this year. For retirees, the dividend was increased by a penny in February to $1.48 per share each quarter. That provides a yield of 3%. The payout was no surprise. 3M has distributed dividends to shareholders consistently for more than 100 consecutive years, and it has raised its payout annually for the past 62. That streak won't end anytime soon. Like Unilever, 3M pays out only slightly more than half of its cash flow in dividends. That's the kind of predictability that lets retirees sleep well at night.
3. Southern Company: Still paying out, even in a tough year
Last year's record storm season, milder weather, and global pandemic presented several challenges to this electric utility that serves 9 million customers across Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Total revenue fell 5% to $20.4 billion, led by a decline in the natural gas segment. But things are looking up in 2021. One positive contribution from the pandemic for Southern has been population growth in the southeast, especially Georgia. Last year the company added 53,000 residential electricity customers and 30,000 residential natural gas customers overall. This is giving the company confidence to boost its projected long-term earnings growth rate to between 5% and 7%. That growth is key to continuing to pay out a juicy dividend.
Currently, management authorizes a payout of $0.64 per share every quarter. That's $2.56 annually and it generates a 4.2% yield. The distribution has been growing about 3% per year and it will likely stay that way for some time.
There are some headwinds for the company. Construction delays at the first nuclear power plant to be completed in the U.S. in three decades are costing the company between $150 million and $190 million. On the latest earnings call, CFO Drew Evans pointed to those cost overruns and a payout ratio -- the percentage of earnings paid out as dividends -- approaching 90% as reasons Southern Company has been keeping its dividend increases modest. But with a yield over 4% and 19 straight years of increases, it's likely that retirees will be understanding as the company works through its issues.