Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

Many investors see electric utilities as among the most boring of companies to invest in. Yet in today's uncertain times, many investors would kill for predictable payouts and regulatory protection of profits. That's part of what PPL (NYSE: PPL) offers, with its electrical generation, transmission, and delivery assets primarily in the Northeast. But what makes PPL stand out from its peers? Below, we'll look at how the company does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.

Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at PPL.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Size Market cap > $10 billion $16.6 billion Pass
Consistency Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years 5 years Pass
  Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years 2 years Fail
Stock stability Beta < 0.9 0.42 Pass
  Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20% (39.1%) Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 18 12.66 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 4.9% Pass
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 5.4% Fail
  Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years 9 years Fail
  Payout ratio < 75% 51% Pass
       
  Total score   6 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

With six points, PPL does a fair job of giving conservative investors many of their preferred traits for a stock. The utility does what many similar companies do: deliver a hefty dividend yield without a whole lot of volatility, although the 2008 bear market sent plenty of stocks like PPL for a loop.

At first glance, PPL resembles many of its utility counterparts. It carries similar dividend yields to Exelon (NYSE: EXC) and American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP), although PPL has a slightly higher earnings multiple on its shares.

One source of strength, though, has come from PPL's international operations. Just as Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) benefited from strength in Central America and Brazil, PPL turned better business conditions in the U.K. into analyst-beating performance in revenue and profits in its most recent quarter. Still, though, PPL has struggled to overcome costs from rising fuel prices and plant maintenance, along with peers Dominion Resources (NYSE: D) and FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE).

For retirees and other conservative investors, the biggest concern may well be the utility's big drop in 2008, falling more than most of its peers. With so many other similarly positioned utilities available to choose from, risk-averse investors may prefer to go with another choice rather than taking a chance with PPL.

Keep searching
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills, and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Exelon and Dominion Resources, as well as writing a covered strangle position in Exelon. 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 Fool has a disclosure policy.