Dividend investors love two things: stable, conservative companies and consistent, reliable dividends. When you combine those two characteristics, you'll find AT&T (NYSE:T) at the top of the list, with the telecom giant topping the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) with its current 5.2% yield. Even though AT&T doesn't have the best total return in the Dow, dividend investors are drawn to the stock's steady payout growth and stable business model, and the company has done a good job of following trends in advancing technology to capture recurring-revenue opportunities over the decades. Let's look at three reasons AT&T has become the Dow's top dividend stock.
1. AT&T has a long history of dividend excellence
AT&T has led the Dow in terms of yield for five years running. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time that AT&T didn't have the highest yield in the Dow, and many of the stocks that boasted higher yields at that time -- most of which came from the financial industry -- ended up having to cut their dividends shortly thereafter in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Even before the crisis, AT&T usually found itself among the highest yielders in the average.
At the same time, AT&T hasn't simply coasted on its reputation. Over time, it has maintained its commitment to steadily rising dividend payments, with regular increases that have led to substantial dividend growth over the decades. As you can see below, with the exception of 2003, during which the company made some additional one-time special dividend payments that created a temporary spike, AT&T's dividend growth has been smooth but reliable for decades.
It's because of that long track record of rising payouts that AT&T qualifies as a Dividend Aristocrat. As one of just a few dozen stocks to boast at least a quarter century of consecutive annual dividend increases, AT&T is among the elite stocks of the dividend world, and that suggests a long-term ability to navigate changing business conditions while still rewarding shareholders with quarterly cash payments.
2. AT&T shareholders also benefit from the company's other ways to return capital to shareholders
With such a high yield, AT&T investors might believe that the telecom wouldn't have much room to do anything else with its available cash. Yet AT&T has also taken steps to shore up its share price by implementing massive share repurchase programs in its history, and recently, the amount of stock the company has bought back has become truly massive.
After a hiatus from buyback operations from 2009 to 2011, AT&T got back into the market for its own shares in a major way in 2012 and 2013, buying back around $12 billion to $13 billion in each of those two years. While the pace has slowed down somewhat so far in 2014, AT&T has consistently used buybacks to amplify its return of shareholder capital at times when it believed doing so was most advantageous.
3. AT&T has more interest in looking at international growth opportunities than its main rival
In considering Dow dividend stocks, the obvious alternative to AT&T is rival telecom Verizon (NYSE:VZ). In buying full control of its Verizon Wireless unit, however, Verizon invested $130 billion in its belief that the domestic U.S. telecom market had the best opportunities for growth.
AT&T has certainly explored ways to expand its domestic reach, but it is also looking more aggressively at international business opportunities. In early November, AT&T announced that it would buy Mexico's Iusacell for $2.5 billion, giving the company exposure to a network that could potentially provide service to about 70% of Mexico's total population. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson expressed his belief that the move could began an initiative that will mean that for customers, "it won't matter which country you're in or which country you're calling -- it will all be one network." In the long run, that might well be the direction in which global telecom services move, and AT&T will be well-positioned to take advantage of that trend if it continues.
AT&T consistently tops the list when you look at the Dow's top dividend stocks. Given the efforts that the telecom has made to grow its business, the odds look good that AT&T will keep its title well into the future.
Dan Caplinger and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.