Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the electric utility industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "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."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into electric utilities
Below, I've compiled some major dividend-paying players in the electric utility industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

Company

Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE) 5.8% 6.4% 80%
Progress Energy 5.7% 1.1% 81%
Duke Energy 5.5% (5.1%) 102%
Otter Tail (Nasdaq: OTTR) 5.3% 1.3% 992%
PPL (NYSE: PPL) 5.3% 9.2% 75%
American Electric Power 5.1% 3.3% 63%
Exelon (NYSE: EXC) 5.0% 6.6% 53%
CenterPoint Energy (NYSE: CNP) 4.9% 12.7% 74%
Southern Company 4.7% 3.9% 72%
Entergy 4.6% 8.8% 45%
National Grid (NYSE: NGG) 4.6% 3.2% 68%
Dominion Resources 4.3% 6.4% 43%
Veolia Environment (NYSE: VE) 4.1% 25.4% 95%
NextEra Energy 3.8% 7.0% 40%

Data: Motley Fool CAPS.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with FirstEnergy and Progress Energy, but they're not necessarily your best bets. Their dividend growth rates aren't stellar, with Progress Energy's dividend in particular making little progress at all. And their payout ratios don't leave a lot of room for growth.

Instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where Veolia Environment and CenterPoint Energy lead the way. Veolia's growth rate is so steep, though, that it may be hard to maintain for long, particularly with its high payout ratio. CenterPoint Energy has a more appealing combination.

Adding payout ratios to the mix, NextEra Energy, Dominion Resources, and Entergy are appealing, with reasonably strong dividend growth rates and lots of room to grow their payouts. But NextEra's and Dominion's yields are at or near the bottom of the pack.

Just right
As I see it, CenterPoint Energy and Entergy give you the best of everything for a dividend stock. They sport yields greater than 4.5%, healthy dividend growth rates, and reasonable payout ratios. They all offer some solid income now, and a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future. Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas of great dividend-paying stocks, read about "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today."

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of National Grid. Exelon is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Otter Tail is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. Dominion Resources, National Grid, and Southern are Motley Fool Income Investor choices. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Exelon. The Fool owns shares of NextEra Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.