Beating the market is incredibly hard, right?

It must be. After all, a heck of a lot of fund managers seem to prove that every year by falling short of the market's returns. And over the past 10 years, not only has beating the market been tough, but showing any positive returns has been a feat since the S&P 500 fell 19%.

But does buying stocks that will give you bragging rights over Mr. Market have to be a brain-bending exercise? Maybe not. In fact, I believe that if you key in on one particular metric, you can improve your investing results and spend less time pulling out your hair over your portfolio (which means more time on the golf course!).

Problem, meet your solution
What is this black magic that I refer to? You've probably heard of it, but if you're like the rest of the investment world you've left this metric sitting in the corner gathering dust with your bell-bottom pants and black-and-white TV. In this one simple number you get to see whether the company you're looking at is actually making money, if its stock is reasonably priced, and how it views its shareholders.

If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about dividends.

Annihilating the market
As I said at the outset, the overall market's performance over the past 10 years -- as measured by the S&P 500 -- has been abysmal. But for investors who had their eyes on dividends back in 2000, the results may have been much different.

Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500 and 2.6% dividend-adjusted decline on the S&P 500-tracking SPDRs, and you'll see why I'm so excited about dividends.

Who were these market-trouncing dividend payers? Don't be too shocked, but many of them are companies that you're probably very familiar with.


10-Year Dividend-Adjusted Returns

Altria (NYSE:MO)


Southern Co. (NYSE:SO)


Lockheed Martin


Norfolk Southern


H.J. Heinz


Source: Capital IQ (a Standard & Poor's company) and Yahoo! Finance; Jan. 6, 2000, to Jan. 6, 2010.

And bear in mind that the returns include some of the bombs in the financial sector which led to big drops for dividend payers like Regions Financial and Huntington Bancshares.

This number-crunching also doesn't take into account any analysis past looking at the dividend yield. Value-added analysis such as judging the sustainability of a company's dividend or evaluating the prospects for the company's business could lead you toward the best opportunities among the dividend payers.

A plan for your portfolio
So what's the best way to leverage the power of dividends? Here are three simple steps that can get you started on putting some dividend might into your portfolio.

  1. Track down high-quality dividend payers. The obvious first step is to find companies that are paying decent dividends. I generally set my benchmark at 2.5% or better. Once you've got a nice big group of dividend payers, identify the companies with strong, stable businesses that you would feel comfortable owning over the next 10 years.

  2. Diversify. Though some sectors may have more dividend payers than other sectors, be careful not to overweight your portfolio too much in one direction. Just ask any bank-happy investor how that has worked out over the past few years.

  3. Hang on and reinvest. Few, if any, market-beating stocks put up their stellar returns in a nice, smooth rise. The key to harnessing dividends is to hang onto the stock, reinvest the dividends, and let the magic of compounding and dollar-cost averaging do the work for you.

Here's a start
The market has charged back considerably from where it was early last year, but there are still a great number of top-flight stocks carrying tasty dividend yields.


Current Yield





Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM)


Pfizer (NYSE:PFE)


Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)


Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Of course you don't have to go down the dividend path by yourself. The investing team at the Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter eats, sleeps, and breathes dividends. If you want to get the lowdown on some of the very best dividend payers, these are the folks to ask. And the best part? You can check out Income Investor in all of its dividend glory with a free 30-day trial.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of AT&T, BP, Philip Morris, and Coca-Cola, but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. Coca-Cola and Pfizer are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Philip Morris International is a Motley Fool Global Gains choice. H.J. Heinz, Coca-Cola, and Southern Co. are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool's disclosure policy always minds the KISS principle.

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.