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5 'Dividend Opportunity' Stocks for 2012

Stocks in this article: MMM HCBK WMT MDT UTX SPY ^GSPC

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In general, stocks paying healthy dividends outperformed in 2011, so it stands to reason that it's too late to join the party now, right?

Not so, according to Oppenheimer & Co., which says that skepticism about the continued pursuit of dividend strategies is misplaced.

"Conventional wisdom would suggest that the focus on dividends has become a crowded trade given all the attention this strategy has garnered lately," wrote Brian Belski, the firm's chief investment strategist, in market commentary released earlier this month. "As it turns out, the data suggest the opposite. Income-oriented U.S. equity funds have exhibited net outflows for much of the past year and these funds have represented an increasingly smaller portion of total U.S. equity funds based on net assets over the past few years."

Belski also said the idea that dividend payers are most relevant in weak or volatile markets doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

"According to our work, this is simply not the case," Belski said. "In fact, dividend strategies have consistently outperformed the overall market and have typically maintained the outperformance in 'strong' market environments."

FactSet Research recently offered up some data for the past 10 years that backs up this point.

"Stocks with a dividend yield in the first and second quintiles of the S&P 500 dividend paying-universe outperformed the S&P 500 by 322% and 96% respectively on a cumulative basis," the firm said. "The remaining three quintiles underperformed the index."

Deutsche Bank makes the point that dividend growth is more compelling than a gaudy yield when it comes to overall stock returns.

"High dividend yield stocks with no growth are essentially bonds and have weaker returns," the firm said on Jan. 17. "Historically, there is strong correlation (71%) between growth in the dividend payout ratio and the multiple, which helps explain why dividend growers outperform -- they get a bump in P/E and higher future dividends."

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