The easy money is gone, folks.

Bargains are still out there. But not easy bargains. Easy bargains were things like Alcoa (NYSE:AA) trading at 1.7 times 2007's earnings. Or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) trading at under 8 times earnings, with almost one-quarter of its market cap in cash. Those were easy bargains. Those were the things of March 2009.

But those days are gone. Ten months and a 65% rally later, no-brainer buys are few and far between. One year ago you could point, shoot, and nail success. Today you've got to use a little more brain power.

Here's why
Now that stocks have returned to sane levels, investors should ask what future economic growth will look like. Forecasting this stuff with precision is a fool's game, but we can at least make broad observations.

Right now, economic growth is being propped up almost entirely by stimulus measures and temporary factors like inventory restocking. If you look at meager third-quarter GDP -- ironically heralded as proof the Great Recession has died -- you'll see that sustainable drivers of economic growth are virtually nonexistent. To get real, sustainable growth, you need to see vigor return to consumers, since that's where 70% of our economic engine resides. Not only is this not happening, but the odds of it happening anytime soon are scant.

The reason is debt. Going back to the early 1970s, the average household debt-to-disposable income level is about 88%. In 2008, it peaked at about 130%. Today it's about 122% -- better, but still miles from the long-term average. Consumers still have their work cut out for them when it comes to purging excesses of the past decade. As long as they do, spending will plod along miserably, and so will economic growth.

What now?
Is all hope lost? If you refuse to acknowledge the new economic world we live in, yes. You're doomed, dear investor. It's a different world today. Bill Gross of bond giant PIMCO calls it the "new normal."

New normal means a world of slower growth, less spending, and debt reduction rather than accumulation. Take the past two decades, throw them upside down, and that's new normal. This is necessary and vital to getting back on track. But it nonetheless leads to a painful conclusion for investors: Lower economic growth means lower real returns on assets like stocks.

There is a solution, though. I'll yield the stage to Gross, since "new normal" really is his idea to begin with:

Do you buy the investment grade bond market with its average yield of 3.75% (less than 3% after upfront fees and annual expenses at most run-of-the-mill bond funds)? Do you buy high yield bonds at 8% and assume the risk of default bullets whizzing at you? Or 2% yielding stocks that have already appreciated 65% from the recent bottom, which according to some estimates are now well above their long-term P/E average on a cyclically adjusted basis ... ?

Let me tell you what I'm doing. I don't have the long-term investment objectives of [Berkshire Hathaway], so I'm sort of closer to an average investor in that regard. If that's the case, I figure, why not just buy utilities if that's what the future American capitalistic model is likely to resemble. Pricewise, they're only halfway between their 2007 peaks and 2008 lows -- 25% off the top, 25% from the bottom. Their growth in earnings should mimic the U.S. economy as they always have, and most importantly they yield 5-6% not .01%!

Ah, utilities. Most pay just about every dime of free cash flow out as dividends because there's nothing else management can do with it. It's as mind-numbingly boring as it gets.

But plenty, like Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED), have 5% yields and have raised dividends every single year going back several decades. Others with a bit more risk, like AT&T (NYSE:T), yield more than 6%. Three others I've got my eye on are American Electric Power (NYSE:AEP) Verizon (NYSE:VZ), and Southern Co. (NYSE:SO) -- all with dividends of 4.5% to 6%.

I know what you're thinking: 6% return? That's it? This is how I'm going to make money? Well, remember the opening words of this article: The easy money is gone. If the economy slogs along, squeezing out lethargic growth, you won't be disappointed with those returns. This ain't the '90s, folks.

Moving on
The past several decades were based on investors honing in on capital gains as a way to get rich. If there's a theme I'd expect for the coming decade, it'd be a reversion to focusing on the tangible returns of dividends. When economic growth can't be counted on, dividends can, especially in noncyclical industries like utilities.

Those dependable, sustainable, tangible returns are what our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter service looks for. Our team recommends two top-tier dividend stocks each month. Their picks are outperforming the market by more than 7 percentage points. If you'd like more information, click here for a free 30-day trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares of Verizon and Southern Company. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Motley Fool Options recommended diagonal calls on Microsoft. Southern Company is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Berkshire Hathaway is an Inside Value and Stock Advisor recommendation and the Fool owns shares of it. The Fool has a disclosure policy.