The Dividend Achievers are a select group of 274 stocks with 10 or more consecutive years of dividend increases.
Having a decade-long streak of consecutive annual dividend hikes is a good sign that a business has a strong competitive advantage with sustainable profits.
Strong businesses are more likely to pay increasing dividends in the future as they tend to generate rising income over time.
But safety alone isn't enough for many investors.
Income investors are being starved by ultra-low interest rates. The S&P 500 yields a paltry 2.0% at these levels.
But here are Dividend Achievers that all have dividend yields of more than twice the S&P 500. These are businesses that fit into both the safety and the high-dividend-income category.
AT&T is the largest telecom provider in North America, based on its $265.89 billion market capitalization.
DirecTV is a major growth catalyst for AT&T.
After acquiring it last year for $67 billion including debt, the takeover brought millions of new domestic and international customers to AT&T. Revenue for the first half of 2016 increased 24% from a year earlier.
DirecTV itself has added nearly 1 million subscribers to AT&T since the acquisition, and AT&T continues to add customers organically. For example, the company gained 2.1 million wireless net customer additions just last quarter, driven by connected devices, growth in Mexico and the renewed success of the Cricket brand.
These customers are proving to be sticky for AT&T. Last quarter, the company enjoyed its second-lowest ever postpaid churn.
And since AT&T and DirecTV share very similar business models, AT&T has been able to procure significant cost synergies since the deal, which have helped boost profitability. Through the first half this year, AT&T's free cash flow has increased 12% to $8.5 billion.
The huge DirecTV has been greeted well by investors. AT&T's stock is up 25% year to date, not even including dividends, trouncing the performance of the overall market.
And AT&T pays a hefty 4.4% dividend. AT&T shareholders have enjoyed both capital appreciation and above-average dividend income over the past few years.
AT&T's growth in new markets, thanks largely to the DirecTV acquisition, could continue that trend in the coming years.
The company had a 69% dividend payout ratio as a percentage of free cash flow, which still leaves room for future dividend increases. AT&T has paid increasing dividends for 32 consecutive years.
The company isn't just a Dividend Achiever. It is also a Dividend Aristocrat, one of 50 stocks that have paid dividends for 25-plus consecutive years.
AT&T raised its dividend by 2% this year and should raise its dividend each year going forward, at least at the rate of inflation.
This has created a bit of uncertainty around the stock, as the recent Brexit vote could throw the European economy into recession. And investors are already nervous about looming rate hikes, which makes financing costlier for companies that rely heavily on debt, such as utilities.
PPL has had a difficult time recently. Last year, the company reported a 10% decline in revenue and a 26% decline in net profit.
However, PPL stock continues to climb the wall of worry.
The stock has returned 6% this year, not including dividends. Its total return so far this year exceeds the return of the S&P 500.
The reason is because well-run utilities such as PPL are a pillar of stability. Despite the recent uncertainty, PPL remains highly profitable and pays a strong 4.2% dividend.
Its decline in earnings last year was due largely to a one-time loss associated with discontinued operations.
Full-year 2016 earnings guidance is for a range of between $2.43 and $2.63 a share. Taking the midpoint of the range, $2.53 per share would easily cover the company's $1.52-a-share annualized dividend payout.
Management expects 5% to 6% annual growth in earnings from next year through 2020, due to annual rate increases and new customer additions. With this earnings growth, the company is targeting 4% annual dividend growth as well.
With a price-earnings ratio of 16.3, PPL stock has a relatively cheap valuation, considering that the S&P 500 has a P/E ratio of 25.2. And PPL offers a dividend yield of twice the index average, meaning that is an attractive stock pick for value and income investors.
3. Verizon Communications (VZ) - Get Report
Like AT&T, Verizon Communications is also a Dividend Achiever in the telecom industry. Not surprisingly, telecoms are typical sources of high dividend yield because these companies generate high levels of free cash flow.
And, also like AT&T, Verizon Communications has turned to acquisitions to drive growth.
The company's big deal in recent years was its 2014 purchase of the remaining 45% stake in Verizon Wireless from European telecom giant Vodafone. Verizon had to fork over a whopping $130 billion to get the deal done, but the cash flow from Verizon Wireless made the deal well worth it.
The company's growth in wire line is tapering off. This is why it makes sense to invest so heavily in wireless.
The wireless business generated more than 100 basis points of additional revenue growth last year than the wire line business, with much higher profit margins as well.
This growth helped Verizon Communications rake in $21.2 billion of free cash flow last year. With that cash flow, Verizon Communications can pay down debt from the acquisition and still reward shareholders with solid dividend increases, on top of a strong dividend yield.
The company's growth will be supplemented by its more recent acquisitions. Verizon Communications will purchase Yahoo! for $4.8 billion, and last year it spent $4.4 billion to acquire AOL.
In both cases, the goal for Verizon Communications is to realize growth in a new, emerging area: video and advertising.
Yahoo! has more than 600 million monthly active mobile users, in addition to its ad technology. The combination of users and technology is what is attractive for Verizon Communications, because it opens up a great deal of potential to significantly expand its reach and scale.
This growth will be key to delivering dividend increases in the years ahead.
Verizon Communications distributed 40% of its free cash flow last year as a dividend, which leaves enough room for future dividend growth in the mid-single-digit-percentage range each year. Verizon Communications offers a 4.2% yield, which is about double the S&P 500 average dividend yield.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.