After more than a year, arguably the stock market's most persistent concern has returned: inflation.

Inflation describes the rising price of goods and services over time. A healthy economy is always going to have some degree of inflation, with consumer demand playing a role in driving prices higher. But if inflation gets too high, consumers will wind up paying more for fewer goods and services, resulting in slower growth. That can be bad news for the stock market -- especially a market that's pricier now than at nearly any point over the last 20 years.

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Though higher inflation levels have historically not been great for stocks, it doesn't mean investors have to run for the hills. On the contrary, it could be the perfect time to seek out the payout potential of dividend stocks.

Just how good have dividend stocks been for investors? According to a report from J.P. Morgan Asset Management, companies that initiated and grew a dividend between 1972 and 2012 -- a period marked by very high inflation rates for at least a decade -- averaged an annual return of 9.5%. The non-dividend-paying stocks? They returned a paltry annual average of 1.6% over the same time. Over 40 years, we're talking about a roughly 19-fold aggregate outperformance.

Ideally, income seekers want the biggest dividend possible with the least amount of risk imaginable. Unfortunately, risk and dividend payouts tend to be correlated. This is to say that high-yield stocks (4% yield or higher) can sometimes be more trouble than they're worth. Since yield is a function of payout relative to price, a company with a struggling or failing operating model could give the impression of a killer yield but ultimately trap unsuspecting income seekers.

This high-yield trio will help investors trounce inflation

But not all high-yield dividend stocks are created equally. The following three high-yield companies offer investors the ability to crush inflation over the long run, as well as grow their initial investment the traditional way.

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Duke Energy: 4% yield

One of the safest ways to run circles around inflation over the long run is to buy into brand-name utility stocks. You're never going to get jaw-dropping growth with utilities, but you'll struggle to find a sector with more predictable or transparent cash flow. That's why electric utility stock Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) can be a winner.

Duke, the second-largest utility stock by market cap in the U.S., behind only NextEra Energy, is following its peers' strategy and investing aggressively in green energy infrastructure. Between 2020 and 2024, it's planning to spend $60 billion on new infrastructure, nearly all of which will focus on renewable energy solutions such as wind and solar. By 2025, the company's five-year plan entails spending $65 billion to $75 billion on renewable projects.

Although these aren't cheap investments, it's the perfect time for Duke Energy to be aggressive. Lending rates are just a stone's throw from historic lows, and the benefit of cheaper electric generation rates should allow its earnings per share to grow by as much as 7% annually. For some context here, most electric utilities grow profits annually by a low single-digit percentage.

To boot, Duke Energy's traditional utility operations (i.e., those not utilizing solar or some other renewable source) are regulated. This is a fancy way of saying that state public utility commissions regulate rate hikes. Though it's not able to pass along price increases at will, Duke avoids potentially wild swings in wholesale pricing by having its traditional utilities regulated.

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AGNC Investment: 8.4% yield

If you want the opportunity to earn a sustainable, monster yield that'll crush inflation, mortgage real estate investment trust (REIT) AGNC Investment (NASDAQ:AGNC) could be just the stock for you. You'll note that its 8.4% yield is more than four times the current trailing 12-month inflation rate of 1.7%.

Without getting into the minutiae, mortgage REITs like AGNC seek to borrow at lower short-term rates and purchase assets (mortgage-backed securities, or MBSs) with higher long-term yields. The difference between these higher long-term yields and the lower short-term borrowing rate is known as net interest margin (NIM). The wider the NIM, or the more leverage (safely) used, the more profit AGNC Investment can make.

The thing investors should realize is that we're in the sweet spot for mortgage REIT growth. During the early stages of an economic recovery, the yield curve usually steepens. This means long-term yields rise while short-term yields flatten out or rise at a slower pace. This disparity usually allows AGNC to purchase MBSs with higher yields while being able to borrow at a low rate. In short, AGNC's NIM heads higher.

Best of all, AGNC's portfolio is almost exclusively packed with agency securities. This is a fancy way of saying that its MBSs are protected by the federal government in the event of a default. Though this added protection means agency securities have lower yields than non-agency assets, it also allows AGNC to safely use leverage to its advantage.

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AT&T: 6.9% yield

A third high-yield dividend stock that'll help investors triumph over inflation is telecom giant AT&T (NYSE:T). With reinvestment, the 6.9% yield it's currently paying can double your money in about a decade, assuming a static share price.

Though its growth heyday is now in the past, AT&T has a number of catalysts that should reignite its organic growth rate and generate plenty of cash flow. For example, AT&T is a key beneficiary of 5G wireless infrastructure upgrades. It's been a decade since wireless download speeds were upgraded in a meaningful way. This suggests the company will benefit immensely from a multiyear technology upgrade cycle. Since AT&T generates a significant chunk of its wireless profit from data consumption, access to 5G is a recipe for margin expansion.

Additionally, AT&T's big push into streaming content should provide a jolt to its top and bottom lines. Following a subdued launch of HBO Max in late May, the company announced that it ended 2020 with 17.2 million subscribers. Further, it expects 120 million to 150 million subscribers by 2025. If AT&T is indeed successful in courting new streaming users, it should more than offset the weakness tied to cord-cutting. 

AT&T has also made strides to reduce its debt load and ensure the stability of its superior dividend. It's selling a minority stake in subsidiary DirecTV, has halted its share buyback program, and is looking to sell other noncore assets to lower its debt liabilities. CEO John Stankey has noted that a dividend cut isn't necessary to facilitate growth at AT&T. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.