The market has been pretty volatile lately, which can start to fray investors' nerves. One way to avoid focusing too much on the stomach-churning gyrations inherent to stock prices is to focus instead on collecting dividend checks from high-yield stocks. Right now, you can get generous 3% and higher dividend yields from some iconic companies, including ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), and General Mills (NYSE: GIS). Here's a primer on these giant dividend-paying stocks.
1. The energy giant
Exxon is a $340 billion market-cap oil and natural gas company with diversified operations that span from the drill bit through to the processing plant and eventually to the gas pump. It has a 36-year history of increasing its dividend annually, a record its closest peers simply can't match. And it currently offers a 4.1% yield, roughly twice what you could get from an S&P 500 index fund.
Better yet, the company has a long history of being run conservatively and for the long term. For example, even during the worst of the oil downturn that started in mid-2014, long-term debt only rose to around 15% of the capital structure. Long-term debt is an incredibly modest 10% or so of the capital structure today. And the company is currently working on a drilling and expansion program that will take it through 2025, but has specifically stated that it is only interested in profitable investments and not growth for the sake of growth.
That's left Exxon a little out of step with peers, notably on the production front. Production fell in 2016, 2017, and through the first nine months of 2018. However, there was a notable shift between the second and third quarters, with production sequentially higher as investments in onshore U.S. oil production started to play out. That's just one of the projects that Exxon is counting on to double earnings by 2025. Getting to that point won't be a smooth ride, but the oil giant's results are starting to show that it is delivering on its promises.
2. Shifting gears has been paying off
Procter & Gamble, with its $230 billion market cap, is a consumer products giant whose diverse portfolio of brands include such well-known names as Bounty, Crest, Gillett, Pampers, and Always. It has increased its dividend each and every year for an astounding 62 years. The stock currently yields 3.1% -- the lowest of this trio of stocks, but still well more than the market is offering.
As a result of the shift in consumer buying habits toward brands viewed as natural and healthy, Procter & Gamble has taken an aggressive approach by selling off noncore brands and focusing on its best assets. It has been introducing new versions of old brands that are on target with current consumer desires, and it's been updating its image and messaging to better reach consumers both online and offline.
There have been some ups and downs in the process, but recent results show that Procter & Gamble is successfully shifting gears -- which it has done many times before in its over 100-year history. For example, companywide organic sales were up 4% in the fiscal first quarter. Particular strength came from its beauty business (whose organic sales were up 7%), where management has been highly focused on upgrading products and branding. That said, the company is still in transition mode, so fiscal 2019 probably won't be an incredible year. But adding a defensive stock with a generous yield -- from a company whose products we use every day -- is a solid decision especially when markets are volatile.
3. Going to the dogs
Last up is General Mills, which has a $24 billion market cap and owns brands like Cheerios, Yoplait, and Betty Crocker. The company traces its history back to 1866. Though it has only boosted its dividend every year for 14 years, it has paid dividends every year for over 100 years. The current yield is a very generous 4.5%.
Like Procter & Gamble, General Mills is dealing with shifting customer tastes. In response, it has been reworking old brands and revitalizing its portfolio via acquisitions like Annie's and Larabar. It has made notable progress, with market-share gains in eight of its nine core categories in the fiscal first quarter of 2019. By comparison, it only notched share gains in two categories in fiscal 2017. Sales were basically flat year over year in the first quarter, so General Mills still has more work to do. But winning more market share shows that it's taking the right steps.
The problem is that a recent move into the pet-food space has investors spooked, and with good reason. The roughly $8 billion deal to buy Blue Buffalo, a high-end, healthy pet-food maker, has increased leverage (long-term debt makes up a heavy 67% of the capital structure) and will lead to a pause in dividend increases over the next few years. However, this business has been growing faster than the rest of General Mills and holding the line on the dividend will allow management to focus on paying down debt.
This is the riskiest of the three high-yield stocks here, but if you can stomach some uncertainty while General Mills absorbs Blue Buffalo, it could be worth the trouble. In fact, the yield today is higher than it was during the deep 2007-2009 recession.
Three 3%-plus yields worth a deep dive today
Unless you live under a rock, you've heard of Exxon, Procter & Gamble, and General Mills and you may even use some of their products. That doesn't make them worth buying, but when you look at their robust dividend yields, long histories of returning cash to investors, and the businesses that support the payouts today, you might find that one of these three companies fits nicely in your dividend portfolio.
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