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 credit services 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 credit services
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in credit services (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:


Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

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Fifth Street Finance (NYSE: FSC) 10.6% (30%)* 188% Add
Advance America (NYSE: AEA) 4.3% (11.8%) 38% Add
SLM 2.5% New dividend 51% Add
Equifax (NYSE: EFX) 1.7% 11.4% 19% Add
Nelnet 1.9% 0%* 31% Add
Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS) 1% 0%* 4% Add
CapitalSource (NYSE: CSE) 0.6% (64.7%) 12% Add
Capital One Financial (NYSE: COF) 0.4% 27.9% 3% Add
Cash America International 0.3% 7.1% 4% Add

Data: Motley Fool CAPS.
*Past three years.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with Fifth Street Finance, but that's not necessarily your best bet. It has shrunk its dividend instead of growing it, and has been paying out well more than it earns.

Instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where Capital One leads the way. With such a small dividend yield, though, it doesn't look very attractive.

You may notice, too, that some players in the industry aren't on the list, such as First Marblehead (NYSE: FMD). Some are small and quickly growing, preferring to plow any excess cash into growth. Others simply have more pressing uses for their cash. First Marblehead has been redefining itself recently, and suspended its dividend back in 2007.

Just right
As I see it, among the companies above, Equifax offers the most appealing combination of dividend traits, with some income now and a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future. You might also want to keep an eye on Fifth Street Finance, as it has many fans in our CAPS community of investors and has earned a five-star rating there.

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.