Is it possible to determine the top-performing stocks of the next half-century? Before looking into the future, we need to consider the past. So let's start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews might say.

Fishing in a well-stocked pond
Those familiar with the work of Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel will know that dividend-paying stocks such as Altria and Coca-Cola have been some of the stock market's best performers since the beginning of the S&P 500 back in 1957.

The key to the amazing returns of these stocks was reinvested dividends. This is a theme we've covered in many articles here at the Fool, but that insight is worth emphasizing. If we are searching for top stocks for a time frame of 50 years, we need to look at dividend-paying stocks.

One place to begin our search might be the Mergent Dividend Achievers Select Index, whose constituents are U.S.-listed companies that have all increased their annual dividend payments for 10 or more consecutive years. Since 1997, the index has returned 9.8% per year on average, which compares very favorably with the S&P 500's 6.6% over that time.

The magnificent seven
The index contains 218 dividend-paying companies. I've put together a sample of seven of them below:


Dividend Yield

Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT)


Hartford Financial Services (NYSE:HIG)




PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)


Walgreens (NYSE:WAG)


Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI)


Stryker (NYSE:SYK)


Data from Yahoo! Finance as of Oct. 24, 2007.

Most of these companies need no introduction. I'm sure you're familiar with Pepsi, Walgreens, and Hartford Financial. Abbott Labs is the seventh-largest drug maker in the world, while SLM (Sallie Mae) has been all over the news thanks to a botched private equity buyout.

However, the names on the list that intrigue me most are the two obscure companies, Johnson Controls and Stryker. Far from your typical "stodgy" dividend payers, these two companies have been growing revenue and net income at a breakneck pace -- and this stellar performance has been reflected in the stock price. In the past two years, orthopedic implant maker Stryker is up 74%, and shares of automobile interior designer Johnson Controls have appreciated 81%.

Will any of these be among the top stocks of the next 50 years? It's tough to say for sure, though I do believe one or two will make the list.

Looking ahead
So, to recap: If history is any indication, the top stocks of the next 50 years will be businesses that have stable, growing dividends; reasonable valuations (part of the reason for Altria's outperformance, Siegel says, is that the constant threat of litigation meant it was always undervalued); and good managers.

Even if you find a top stock of the next 50 years, the only way you'll benefit from those potential gains is to hold for the long term and let the power of reinvested dividends work in your favor.

James Early and Andy Cross, advisors of our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter service, scour the markets for the best performers of the next 10, 20, and yes, 50 years. Income Investor recommendations boast an average dividend yield greater than 4% and, collectively, those picks are beating the market at large by four percentage points. You can see all our picks and research for free with a no-obligation, 30-day trial. Click here to learn more about our favorite dividend-paying stocks.

This article was originally published on Jan. 26, 2007. It has been updated.

John Reeves hopes he will be around to see how well these companies perform 50 years from now. He does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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.