BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Yes, you've heard it before: 2013 has been a great year for stocks. And it's been an especially stellar year has been for dividend stocks in particular. In the last 12 months, the S&P 500's dividend payouts have increased by 9.6% to new all-time highs.
For the first time in the last 40 years, the S&P 500's dividend payout is actually above the yield you can get from five-year Treasuries. That really speaks to the income-investability of equities right now.
And the stage is set for even more dividend hikes in 2014.
As I write, the companies that make up the S&P 500 currently hold more cash than they ever have before -- around $1.25 trillion at last count. Even better, they added a whopping $102 billion to their coffers just last quarter; that's more than any other quarter since 2009. And with limited options to deploy those mammoth cash reserves right now, dividends continue to be an obvious choice.
To take advantage of that trend today, were focusing on dividend stocks that look ready to hike their payouts. So instead of chasing yield, well try to step in front of the next round of stock payout hikes.
For our purposes, that "crystal ball" is composed of a few factors: namely a solid balance sheet, a low payout ratio and a history of dividend hikes. While those items don't guarantee dividend announcements in the next month or three, they do dramatically increase the odds that management will hike their cash payouts.
Without further ado, here's a look at five stocks that could be about to increase their dividend payments in the next quarter.
2013 has been a good year for Comcast (CMCSA) -- the entertainment and communications company has rallied more than 35% since the calendar flipped over to January. Comcast has undergone a big shift in the last few years, acquiring 100% of media giant NBCUniversal from General Electric (GE) in a deal that closed in March. That makes Comcast the largest cable TV utility in the country, and one of the biggest content producers.
Comcast owns a huge cable network that reaches 53 million households across 40 states and Washington, D.C. Nearly half of those are paying Comcast subscribers to video, Internet or phone service. Because cable has significant bandwidth, Comcast has been able to ramp up its offerings without having to lay new cable, so while next-gen fiber optic offerings such as Verizon's (VZ) FiOS can offer incrementally faster speeds, the return on investment is a lot harder to justify than Comcast's in-the-ground cables.
By buying NBCUniversal, Comcast transitioned from effectively being a content reseller to owning that content. The move gives the firm a tighter integration between content creation and distribution that should help to boost margins and increase promotional opportunities for new films and shows. Comcast operates two capital-intense businesses, but it generates enough cash to comfortably service its debt load -- and with nearly $6 billion in the bank now, Comcast looks ready for a dividend hike.
At present, Comcast pays out a 19.5-cent quarterly dividend that amounts to a 1.54% yield.
IP networking behemoth Cisco Systems (CSCO) already sports a pretty hefty dividend payout. The firm's 17-cent quarterly distribution works out to a 3.23% yield at current price levels, enough to make CSCO one of the better income options in the tech sector. But after keeping its payout flat for the last four quarters, Cisco looks ready to give shareholders a raise.
Cisco is the world's largest supplier of the equipment and software used to connect devices. As you read these words, there's a pretty good chance a Cisco product was involved in getting this sentence from the servers to your screen. That scale gives CSCO some palpable advantages. Switching costs are exceptionally high for Cisco's customers; because Cisco's gear is designed to plug-and-play with other Cisco components, IT departments that buy Cisco products can often see much lower integration and ongoing technical support costs. That gives Cisco an important economic moat right now, even if competition is trying to move in on its business.
From a financial perspective, Cisco's balance sheet is a thing of beauty. As of last quarter, the firm carries a net cash position of $32.8 billion, enough to cover nearly a third of the blue chip giant's market capitalization today. With a history of dumb acquisitions, Cisco's management is likely to be more gun-shy about growth-through-acquisition. A dividend hike looks like a better option.
Most investors don't think of $112 billion home improvement chain Home Depot (HD) as a "dividend stock" -- and rightfully so. With a dividend yield that currently comes in at 1.95%, HD's payout is nothing special for the retail sector. But even if Home Depot isn't an income super-star, a dividend hike could help spur shares into new high territory. That's reason enough to take a closer look.
Home Depot is the biggest home improvement chain in the country, with more than 2,250 big-box stores across North America. Those stores sell tools and materials for home construction, remodeling and maintenance. As homeowners continue to spend money on home improvements into 2014, HD will continue to benefit. Retail isn't HD's only focus; the firm also has a thriving wholesale construction business that provides a revenue multiplier when housing is strong.
HD made some big mistakes coming into 2008. The firm's store footprint was overextended, and so was its balance sheet. But a restructuring effort in the wake the Great Recession transformed the firm into one of the most profitable retail operations on the public markets. With considerable cash coming off that income statement, there's room for a boost to the company's 39-cent quarterly dividend in the coming months.
United Parcel Service
Investors in United Parcel Service (UPS) got a bit of a scare late last month when Amazon.com's (AMZN) Jeff Bezos revealed that his firm was working on autonomous drones that could provide same-day delivery, which could potentially eat away at UPS' share of the market. But I don't think the big brown trucks are going away anytime soon.
UPS is the largest package delivery company, with a fleet of 500 aircraft and 100,000 vehicles that deliver a combined 16.2 million shipments per day to homes and businesses around the world. With mind-numbing network replication costs, barriers to entry are massive in the delivery business, and so UPS operates in a near-duopoly with FedEx (FDX).
Not all of UPS' revenues come from the conventional package delivery that consumers are most familiar with. More that 15% of sales come from freight forwarding and logistics services, a business that's becoming more and more important (and profitable) as fuel costs rise for UPS' customers. Despite a very capital-intense business, UPS actually sports a pretty attractive balance sheet, replete with the ability to afford a dividend hike in the next few months. For now, UPS pays out a 62-cent quarterly dividend for a 2.4% yield.
2013 has been a phenomenal year for BlackRock (BLK). Shares of the asset manager have rallied more than 49% since January. But you didn't really need to look at a chart to know that; as the biggest investment management firm in the world, BLK is, in many ways, a leveraged bet on the performance of the stock market. With the S&P 500 up more than 25% year-to-date, great performance from BLK was pretty much a given.
And from where I sit, 2014 looks pretty good too for BlackRock.
BlackRock manages more than $4.1 trillion in assets, good enough to make it the single biggest money manager in the world. And bigger is definitely better for money management firms. BlackRock gets paid based on how much cash it has under its umbrella, so as this bull market swells the account balances in BlackRock accounts, the firm collects bigger checks. Not long ago, BlackRock's payout wouldn't have been as big the firm was known as primarily a fixed-income shop until the 2009 acquisition of Barclays Global Investors, a move that fortuitously boosted BLKs equity exposure just a few months after stocks bottomed after the crash. Timing has proven to be everything at BlackRock, and that good timing continues to be worth watching now.
New product launches aimed at retail investors should provide whatever growth the market doesn't in 2014. One big inroad comes from ETFs, which BlackRock offers under its iShares banner. The firms decision to partner up with major retail brokers to offer commission-free ETFs should help spur an increase in retail AUM during a period when retail participation has been lacking.
Right now, BlackRock pays out a $1.68 quarterly dividend that adds up to a 2.18% yield, but the firm has the wherewithal to give shareholders a raise in the new year.
To see these dividend plays in action, check out the at Dividend Stocks for the Week portfolio on Stockpickr.
-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.
At the time of publication, author had no positions in stocks mentioned.
Jonas Elmerraji, CMT, is a senior market analyst at Agora Financial in Baltimore and a contributor to TheStreet. Before that, he managed a portfolio of stocks for an investment advisory returned 15% in 2008. He has been featured in Forbes , Investor's Business Daily, and on CNBC.com. Jonas holds a degree in financial economics from UMBC and the Chartered Market Technician designation.
Follow Jonas on Twitter @JonasElmerraji.
Follow Jonas on Twitter @JonasElmerraji