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 get cut or suspended entirely can wreak havoc on a stock price -- and, thus, your portfolio.

Combine high yield with low risk
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 net income a company uses 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 of less than 80% for safer companies, and a sub-60% or even sub-50% payout for companies considered 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 health care companies for further research. I made sure the stocks met the following criteria:

  • Market cap > $1 billion.
  • Payout ratio < 60%.
  • Three-year dividend growth > 0%.
  • In the health care sector, as defined by Capital IQ.

Here are the top 10 highest yielders the screen produced.

Company

Market Cap
(in Millions)

Payout Ratio

3-Year Cumulative
Dividend Growth

Dividend Yield

Add to Your Watchlist

Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY)

$43,054

45%

12%

5.3%

Add

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ)

$180,011

48%

30%

3.5%

Add

Owens & Minor (NYSE: OMI)

$2,134

42%

55%

2.4%

Add

Medtronic (NYSE: MDT)

$41,030

31%

80%

2.4%

Add

Pharmaceutical Product Development (Nasdaq: PPDI)

$2,966

50%

131%

2.3%

Add

Teleflex (NYSE: TFX)

$2,414

23%

6%

2.3%

Add  

Baxter International (NYSE: BAX)

$33,647

34%

56%

2.1%

Add

Cardinal Health

$15,535

27%

63%

1.9%

Add

Becton, Dickinson

$18,743

27%

47%

1.9%

Add

Quality Systems

$2,413

56%

25%

1.7%

Add  

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

Since you're presumably here looking for a decent yield, it's probably best to concentrate on the companies higher in the table. To add any of these to your free personal watchlist, just follow the appropriate "add" link in the table.

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 in bear or bull markets, there's a reason 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 tweets but is not a twerp. He runs a real-money Rising Star portfolio based on his screens. Rex owns shares of Johnson & Johnson but of no other companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Teleflex, Pharmaceutical Product Development, Becton, Quality Systems, and Johnson & Johnson. They have also recommended creating a diagonal call position in Johnson & Johnson. 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.