The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.By Carla Pasternak NEW YORK ( StreetAuthority) -- As income investors, we can get caught up in yields almost to a fault. But there is something else you should be studying that could make just as big a difference to your long-term returns: dividend growth. That's because dividend growth can make even lower-yielding stocks into big income producers over time. Take a look below at the income streams from a stock yielding 7% but not growing dividends, versus a 5% yielder that hikes payments an average of 10% a year in seven years. If you held 1,000 shares trading at a $10 share price, then here is the income stream each would produce during one year:
But there are more advantages to companies able to consistently grow dividend payments. One often overlooked "plus" is that they tend to be safer investments. Dividends are a litmus test of a company's true financial strength. Only companies able to grow earnings through good times and bad will commit to consistently raising dividends. And these are the types of business that tend to see more stability in their shares. The best measure of their value is how dividend growers perform over time. And the best proof lies in a special index created by Standard & Poor's, called the "Dividend Aristocrats." Every company on this list must have posted increased dividends in each of the past 25 years. According to S&P data, the Dividend Aristocrats have consistently outperformed the broader S&P 500. The Dividend Aristocrats fell only -22% during the 2008 market crash, much less than the -37% decline for the S&P 500. Moreover, the group rebounded 27% the following year, slightly better than the 26% gain on the S&P 500. As you would guess, the ranks of the Dividend Aristocrats are exclusive: only 42 of the 500 companies in the S&P made the list this year (about 8% of the index). To hone in on the top contenders for my Dividend Opportunities readers, I used this list of 42 companies as my starting point and then looked at the eight companies that tend to raise payments the fastest:
Pitney Bowes ( PBI) Yield: 7.6% Pitney Bowes yields 7.6% and has recorded 29 consecutive years of dividend growth. Its business is boring: It makes postage meters and mail processing equipment, but its dividend growth is anything but. Dividends have grown an average of 10% a year since Pitney Bowes began paying investors in 1982. The 2011 increase of about 1.4% was below average, but it did raise the annual payment to $1.48 per share. Cincinnati Financial ( CINF) Yield: 6.1% The only financial company that made this list is Cincinnati Financial, a property/casualty insurance provider. This company has raised dividends 50 years in a row -- a wonderful half-century of increasing payments. Dividend increases of late have slowed in line with the overall economic outlook, but consider that in 1999 the company paid just about 60 cents a share, compared to today's $1.60 annual rate.
Leggett & Platt ( LEG) Yield: 5.4% Fixture and furniture manufacturer Leggett & Platt saw a rebound in its markets and signaled confidence in its future prospects in August 2010 by hiking the dividend 4% to a $1.08 per share annual rate. Last month, the company reaffirmed its stance by raising the dividend again to $1.12. The company boasts an impressive track record of 40 years of dividend growth. Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) Yield: 3.6% Johnson & Johnson's 3.6% yield isn't likely to "wow" you -- but remember the example above when it comes to growing dividend payments. The company has increased dividends 49 years in a row. The last increase, announced in April, boosted the dividend by 6% to a $2.28 annual rate. Abbott Labs ( ABT) Yield: 3.7% Drug manufacturer Abbott Labs has grown dividends for 39 years running. Like Johnson & Johnson, it's another medical company that doesn't pay a high "headline" yield, but it can grow payments. In the past decade, dividend growth has averaged nearly 9% a year. The last hike, in April, was a 9% increase. Abbott now pays a $1.92 annual dividend per share, up from just 74 cents in 2000. Automatic Data Processing ( ADP) Yield: 3% Automatic Data Processing provides payroll processing services to thousands of businesses nationwide. Even with unemployment now at a high, this company has been able to hike dividends every year for 36 years straight. The last increase raised the payment by 6% to a $1.44 annual rate. In the past decade, annual dividend growth has averaged an impressive 12%. McGraw-Hill ( MHP) Yield: 2.4% You might not know it, but McGraw-Hill actually owns Standard & Poor's, so it is only fitting this company makes S&P's Dividend Aristocrats list. McGraw-Hill's ranking comes thanks to 38 straight years of dividend growth. In the last decade, dividends have grown an average 8% a year. The last dividend hike, in February, lifted the annual rate to $1 per share. PPG Industries ( PPG) Yield: 3.1% PPG Industries is a relatively new member to the list, with "only" 26 years of dividend increases -- but it has paid 452 consecutive dividends. This maker of sealants and window coatings last raised dividends in May by two pennies per quarter to a $2.28 annual rate. Action to Take: Before investing in any of the ideas above, I would want to examine each in more detail, considering factors like business outlook and financial strength. Still, the combination of dividend increases and a solid yield makes this list an interesting starting point for further research. Disclosure: Neither C. Pasternak nor StreetAuthority hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article. Also See:
5 Undervalued Small Stocks Under $5 The Easiest Way I Know to Make Money in Stocks These Two Solar Stocks are a Major "Buy"