The power of dividend investing is pretty well-known these days. Higher-yielding stocks tend to offer higher returns over time than low- or no-yield stocks, according to research from Jeremy Siegel and others. In fact, the 20 best-performing survivor stocks from the original S&P 500 in 1957 are all dividend payers.

What's more, reinvesting dividends acts as a "bear-market protector and return accelerator," according to Siegel. The extra shares purchased and accumulated at higher dividend yields during down periods act as a protector in falling markets, and these extra shares rising in value turn into a "return accelerator" when prices rise.

As the recent economic crisis illustrated all too well, however, you can't buy just any high-yielding stock. Dividends that are cut or suspended entirely can wreak havoc on a stock price -- and thus your portfolio.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lessen your chances of buying one of these train wrecks. James Early, advisor of our Motley Fool Income Investor service, suggests looking at the payout ratio, for starters. That's simply the percentage of a company's net income used to pay its dividend. Obviously, the higher the payout ratio, the tougher it is for a company to meet its dividend obligation. James looks for a payout ratio less than 80% for safer companies, and a sub-60% or even sub-50% payout for companies you consider risky.

To further stack the odds on your side, you can limit your search to companies that have grown their dividend over the past three years or so. That eliminates the less stable or erratic dividend payers.

I constructed a screen to find some promising high-yield, low-risk companies for further research, and my goal is to present it to you weekly. I made sure the stocks met the following criteria:

  • Market cap > $1 billion.
  • Payout ratio < 60%.
  • Three-year dividend growth > 0%.

Here are the top 10 highest yielders the screen produced:                                

Company

Market Cap
(in millions)

Payout Ratio

3-Year Cumulative
Dividend Growth

Dividend Yield

AT&T (NYSE: T)

$162,493

50%

15%

6.3%

OneBeacon Insurance Group

$1,306

48%

33%

6.1%

DPL (NYSE: DPL)

$3,133

51%

16%

5.1%

Exelon (NYSE: EXC)

$27,720

54%

19%

5.0%

Cinemark Holdings

$1,908

54%

142%

5.0%

Cincinnati Financial (Nasdaq: CINF)

$5,234

51%

13%

5.0%

AGL Resources NYSE: AGL)

$2,817

54%

9%

4.9%

Alliance Resource Partners (Nasdaq: ARLP)

$2,514

58%

43%

4.9%

DTE Energy

$7,817

59%

1%

4.9%

H&R Block (NYSE: HRB)

$3,814

39%

9%

4.8%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

These stocks are great places to start your research, but they're not formal recommendations. It's very easy to keep up with them -- just add the ones you're interested in to your watchlist.

What this means
Siegel sums it up nicely in his book, The Future for Investors: "Bear markets are not only painful episodes that investors must endure, but also an integral reason why investors who reinvest dividends experience sharply higher returns."

Whether bear or bull market, there's a reason why the top-performing stocks over the decades are all dividend payers. If you're lacking that type of exposure in your portfolio, you should take the first steps now toward finding stable dividend payers designed to weather any market cycle.

Fool analyst Rex Moore is not a twit, but he does tweet on Twitter. He owns no companies mentioned here. AGL Resources and Alliance Resource Partners are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Exelon, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.