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 diversified utilities 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 with 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' 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 diversified utilities
I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the diversified utilities industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:


Recent Yield

5-Year Average Annual Dividend Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

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Exelon (NYSE: EXC) 4.8% 5.9% 58% Add
PG&E (NYSE: PCG) 4.7% 7.2% 72% Add
Westar Energy (NYSE: WR) 4.7% 5.4% 69% Add
SCANA 4.4% 3.2% 65% Add
Avista (NYSE: AVA) 4.3% 14.1% 61% Add
Public Service Enterprise Group 4.2% 4.2% 53% Add
Consolidated Edison (NYSE: ED) 4.1% 0.8% 65% Add
CenterPoint Energy (NYSE: CNP) 4.0% 6.2% 25% Add
Alliant Energy 4.0% 7.6% 63% Add
CMS Energy 4.0% 43.2%* 55% Add
CH Energy Group 3.9% 0.5% 59% Add

Data: Motley Fool CAPS.
*Past four years.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with companies growing their dividends very slowly or not at all, or companies with such high payout ratios that there's little room left for growth. The highest-yielding companies in this group are not unattractive in that way, but there are some compelling companies further down the list.

Just right
As I see it, among these companies, Exelon, PG&E, and Avista offer the best combination of dividend traits, sporting some significant income now and a good chance of solid dividend growth in the future. Others, such as Westar Energy, are also worth a closer look.

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, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry.

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

Looking for some All-Star dividend-paying stocks? Look no further.

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.