The 2 Safest High-Yield Dividend Stocks in Energy

Investing in a high-yield stock isn't worth it if the dividend winds up getting cut. The fat yield, in that case, was little more than an illusion. The energy industry has been plagued by this phenomenon in recent years, as exemplified by Kinder Morgan's 75% 2016 dividend cut or ENI's nearly 30% cut in 2015. But there are no magic tricks taking place at 6.4%-yielding Enterprise Products Partners L.P. (NYSE: EPD) or 3.8%-yielding ExxonMobil Corporation (NYSE: XOM). They are two of the safest high-yield dividends stocks in the energy space backed by long, and still intact, annual dividend growth streaks.  

A gigantic enterprise

Enterprise, an oil and natural gas midstream limited partnership, sports the higher yield of this pair. That's not surprising since the partnership structure is specifically designed to pass income through to unitholders. But it's worth noting that the 6.4% yield is backed by 20 consecutive years' worth of distribution increases, with an average annual increase of about 5%. So it has both an impressive yield and an impressive record of slow and steady distribution growth.  

Enterprise is one of the largest and most diversified midstream players. It is continuing to invest for the future, with roughly $9 billion in growth investments in the works right now. That will help the partnership keep increasing the distribution in the years ahead. And Enterprise is conservatively run, with distribution coverage of 1.2 times providing a nice margin of safety for yield seekers.  

But one of the most exciting pieces of data here is that, even during the worst of the oil downturn that started in mid-2014, Enterprise's core distributable cash flow continued to head slowly higher. In other words, it was able to keep growing its largely fee-based business right through an energy industry rough patch while rewarding unitholders with distribution increases and solid distribution coverage of at least 1.2 times. If you're looking for a high and safe yield, you need to put Enterprise on your list -- even if you aren't focused on the energy patch.  

The oil-drilling titan

Another energy company you should be looking at for a safe high yield is integrated energy major ExxonMobil. The company has increased its dividend for an incredible 35 years despite operating in a commodity business prone to volatile price swings. The average annualized increase over the past decade was nearly 9%, around three times the historical rate of inflation growth.  

That said, it didn't sail through the recent oil downturn nearly as well as Enterprise. But that's actually one of the reasons to like Exxon more than its integrated energy peers, most of which have higher leverage ratios.

When oil prices started to collapse in mid-2014, Exxon's top and bottom lines took a big hit. But it continued to invest in its business and increase the dividend anyway. It did that by cutting costs and adding leverage to its balance sheet (cost-cutting and increasing debt was the basic tactic for all the energy majors). But here's the interesting thing: Despite long-term debt increasing from roughly $7 billion in 2013 to nearly $29 billion in 2016, Exxon is still one of the least-leveraged oil majors.  

Basically it , sed its strong balance sheet to power through the energy downturn, which is exactly what you want to see. The key, however, is that even after all that additional leverage, long-term debt still only makes up about 12% of the capital structure -- an industry-leading metric.  

The improving energy market, meanwhile, has allowed Exxon to again cover its dividend and capital spending plans, and given it enough breathing room to pay down $4 billion in long-term debt through the first half of the year. There are integrated oil majors with higher yields, but none stacks up to Exxon's financial strength and dividend history.

Robust survivors

You can find energy companies with yields higher than Enterprise or Exxon relatively easily. But the mix of dividend safety and high yield that each of these industry giants offers is a lot harder to come by. Both have proven their mettle and commitment to investors through long, uninterrupted streaks of annual dividend increases and their astute management through the recent, and deep, oil downturn. And with Enterprise and Exxon both offering relatively high yields today, these stocks could be prime portfolio candidates if you're looking for safe, high-yield dividend investments.

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Reuben Gregg Brewer owns shares of ExxonMobil. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Kinder Morgan. The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. The Motley Fool recommends Enterprise Products Partners. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.