Question everything.

It's a good motto if you ever find yourself in a government-conspiracy movie. And it'll also serve you well any time money's involved.

The folks who question seemingly self-evident principles can make an absolute killing.

  • Ask the Super Bowl bettors who took the so-called suckers' bet of the Giants over an 18-0 Patriots team.
  • Ask hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made more than $10 million a day in 2007 ($3.7 billion total) because he figured out housing prices could actually fall.  
  • Or ask some guy named Craig who questioned the virtual monopoly that newspapers had on classifieds (yes, that's a craigslist reference).

So when I heard the argument recently that dividends are actually a bad thing, I was willing to listen.

In fact, it's a more compelling argument than you may think.

These dividends are just dumb
Why do we invest money in a company? Ultimately, it's because we think that company can grow our money by using that money to invest in its growth.

When a company turns around and gives us that money right back (creating a taxable event in the process), it defeats the purpose. If we want out, we can simply sell our shares. And do so on our own timetables.

Hence, anti-dividend people maintain that even the modest dividends that companies like Halliburton (NYSE: HAL), General Electric (NYSE: GE), and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) pay out are just plain dumb.

But hear them out. The case against dividends gets stronger given the reason folks buy dividend stocks in the first place.

Frequently, investors who buy shares of companies that pay large dividends are seeking safety and stability. Why? Because a company that commits to a regular dividend payment is signaling exactly that -- safety and stability.

So it's ironic that a dividend can act like debt -- an obligation that makes the bad times worse. Although paying dividends is optional (while missing debt payments leads to bankruptcy), a company that chooses to cut its dividend signals weakness, often leading to a further weakening of its stock price. That's a double whammy no investor wants to face.

Yet I still heart dividends
So why am I still bullish on dividend payers?

I'll leave aside the empirical evidence that dividend payers have handily outperformed non-payers historically. Instead, let's look at a company's life cycle.

Early in a company's history, it feeds on cash like a baby sucks down formula. Investors don't care, though, because the company needs that capital to fuel its growth. Soon enough, that company either fails or becomes bigger and stronger.

At some point, it starts producing more cash than it's consuming. It can then build a war chest to ensure its survival through good times and bad.

But then what? If there aren't any compelling internal opportunities, a company has four choices:  

  • Sit on the cash.
  • Buy back shares.
  • Make acquisitions.
  • Pay dividends.

When you look at all four options carefully, dividends make a heck of a lot of sense.

Dividends stand alone
Sitting on cash is safe, but it’s a drag on a company's return on capital -- especially when interest rates are hugging 0%. Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) chosen this path, hoarding more than $20 billion. But few companies have the amazing innovation-driven growth that can hide this drag.

Buying back shares is almost like a dividend with no tax consequences. In fact, if a company can buy back its stock at low points, it can really juice returns to current shareholders. Unfortunately, most managements don't do a good job of timing. Even Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), the reputed master of the markets, made massive repurchases of its stock throughout the heady bubble years only to have to sell new stock to raise cash when its stock price was hammered. Classic "buy high, sell low" behavior.

Acquisitions are the scariest of all. You see, management is often judged on its ability to grow the business, specifically earnings per share. That's why they’ll buy back shares at inopportune times. And that's why they'll pursue ill-advised acquisitions and poorly conceived internal projects with such gusto. This growth at an unreasonable price helps management but hurts shareholders.   

Which leads to the reason I love dividends. The issuance of a regular dividend instills management discipline by removing some capital from consideration. You can't waste what you can't touch.

Meanwhile, as shareholders, we get a nice income stream ... the classic stock play that yields like a bond.

With 10-year Treasury bonds currently yielding just 3.6%, dividend stocks are that much more attractive. Because of this, let me share three dividend plays that the dividend hounds at our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter have identified and recommended.

Company

Description

Dividend Yield

Paychex (Nasdaq: PAYX)

America's largest payroll processor for small and medium-sized businesses

4.1%

Clorox (NYSE: CLX)

Maker of Clorox bleach, Glad trash bags, Kingsford charcoal, and Pine-Sol

3.3%

Philippine Long Distance Telephone

The Philippines' leading fixed and mobile telecom provider

4.9%

One of the companies above is a "buy first" recommendation -- and only six companies get that nod from the Income Investor analysts. If you'd like to find out the names of all six and gain access to all their recommendations and research, access is yours free for 30 days. Click here to start. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Anand Chokkavelu owns shares of Microsoft and Halliburton. Microsoft and Paychex are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Apple is a Stock Advisor choice. Clorox, Paychex, and Philippine Long Distance Telephone are Income Investor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call on Microsoft. 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.