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.

General Electric (NYSE: GE) is the ultimate conglomerate. With businesses ranging from light bulbs and wind turbines to health-care equipment and television stations, GE stood atop the business world as recently as a decade ago. Yet the company's finance division almost brought on its downfall. Now that GE has recovered, can it get back to its illustrious past as a dominant industrial leader? Below, we'll revisit how General Electric 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 General Electric.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Size Market cap > $10 billion $201 billion Pass
Consistency Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years 2 years Fail
Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years 3 years Fail
Stock stability Beta < 0.9 1.61 Fail
Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20% (53.9%) Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 18 16.12 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 3.6% Pass
5-year dividend growth > 10% (9.9%) Fail
Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years 2 years Fail
Payout ratio < 75% 41.1% Pass
Total score 4 out of 10

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

Since we looked at General Electric last year, the company has actually picked up a point. Yet even with earnings having increased to give the stock a more reasonable valuation, GE still doesn't give conservative investors the confidence they had in the stock before the financial crisis.

Fool analyst John Del Vecchio recently presented a fairly bearish case for GE. He pointed to record backlogs at the company as a potentially positive sign, but with revenue having declined each of the past three years and an alarming increase in "other assets" on the balance sheet, he sees GE's inability to convert that backlog into actual business as troubling.

Recently at least, though, investors seem to be buying into a more bullish view. Even though the company's dividend hasn't been restored to its pre-crisis levels, it represents a 3.6% yield at current share prices -- earning it a spot on the "Dogs of the Dow" list. Moreover, it has largely put its history as a finance-dominated company behind it, distancing itself from Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) and other financial peers that remain beholden to the current Wall Street environment.

The company is also moving forward with new initiatives. Just this week, GE said it would add 5,000 veterans to its ranks, along with three new plans and $580 million in new capital toward its aviation business this year, which will help it stand up to competitor United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) in the aircraft-engine space. It also announced a joint venture with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) to provide health-care IT. Working with Cree (Nasdaq: CREE), GE expects LED production to increase, as the efficient lighting solution sees further price declines, making it a more economically viable technology.

For retirees and other conservative investors, the renewed dividend is good news. But it's more important for GE to demonstrate its continuing commitment to shareholders not just through payouts and buybacks but with sustained growth. If it can deliver, GE could earn a place in many retirement portfolios.

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.

If you really want to retire rich, no one stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, plus it reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. 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.