NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Interest rates are still near historical lows. The S&P 500 has a dividend yield well under 2%. Many investors think there are no quality stocks that still have high dividend yields. Safety and high yield can be found, if you look in the right industries.

Here are six stocks in three industries that consumers love to hate (telecom, cigarettes and utilities) that offer strong dividends of 4% or higher. 

Telecom: AT&T & Verizon

The telecommunications industry in the U.S is controlled by four companies which together have a market share over 90%:

AT&T and Verizon alone have a combined market share of about 65%. They also stand out for a different reason: their extremely high dividend yields. AT&T has a dividend of 5.6% while Verizon has a dividend of 4.4%.

In addition to high current dividends, both AT&T and Verizon have long dividend histories. AT&T is a Dividend Aristocrat thanks to its 31 consecutive years of dividend increases.

Stop and think about that. AT&T has given investors a dividend raise each year for over three decades. The company's extremely long dividend streak has lasted through changing technology as AT&T has reinvented itself from land lines to wireless.

Verizon has an impressive dividend history as well. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends for just as long as AT&T -- 31 years. The difference is, Verizon has not increased its dividend payments every year. This does not mean Verizon has worse growth prospects going forward, however. In fact, Verizon has grown to become larger than AT&T. Verizon has a market cap of $202 billion versus $173 billion for AT&T.

Verizon Wireless is re-positioning itself away from "wire-line" business and towards wireless. The company spent $10.4 billion in the most recent wireless spectrum auction. Verizon is already heavily levered and pays out the bulk of its cash flows as dividends. To finance the wireless auction, Verizon is selling its California, Florida, and Texas wire-line operations to Frontier Communications (FTR - Get Report) in a deal valued at $10.5 billion ($9.9 billion in cash and about half-a-billion in assumed debt). Additionally, Verizon is selling 165 wireless towers and leasing the rights to more than 11,300 additional towers to American Tower Corporation (AMT - Get Report) for an upfront payment of about $5 billion and additional lease payments thereafter. The proceeds of the transaction will go to a $5 billion share repurchase which should reduce the company's outstanding stock by about 2.5%. Verizon's transactions set the company for future wireless growth while monetizing slow or negative growth assets.

That said, AT&T dwarfed Verizon's spending in the spectrum auction with an $18.2 billion buy. Together, AT&T and Verizon accounted for 65% of auction spending. AT&T will pay for its auction spending by taking out debt (AT&T is not as leveraged as Verizon) and paying the debt down over the next three years.

Verizon's growth plans center on wireless in the U.S., while AT&T is taking a wider stance of growing in both the U.S. and Latin America. AT&T is acquiring DirecTV (DTV - Get Report) to gain a foothold in Latin America as DirecTV has a large presence there. Additionally, AT&T is acquiring Nextel Mexico for under $2 billion. The move will see AT&T compete directly with Carlos Slim's American Movil (AMOVF) and Telefonica (TEF - Get Report) which together have a market share over 90% in the country.

AT&T and Verizon are among the safest and highest paying dividend stocks. The multi-billion price tag to purchase wireless spectrum from the U.S. government combined with high tower fixed costs gives the wireless telecommunications industry very high barriers to entry. Income oriented investors will benefit from the safety that comes from these high barriers to entry as well as from the more-than 4% dividend yields of Verizon and AT&T.

Cigarettes: Altria & Philip Morris International

It is only fitting to analyze Altria (MO - Get Report) and Philip Morris International (PM - Get Report) together. These two companies used to be one company prior to 2009. Altria sells branded tobacco products (including the No. 1 cigarette brand Marlboro) in the U.S., while Philip Morris sells branded tobacco products (again, including Marlboro) everywhere in the world except the U.S. Altria has a market capitalization of $102 billion while Philip Morris has a market cap of $124 billion. If combined, Altria and Philip Morris would be the 18th largest publicly traded stock in U.S. markets.

Philip Morris and Altria not only sell addicting products, they also have enticing dividend yields:

  • Philip Morris International -- 5.0% dividend yield
  • Altria -- 4.0% dividend yield

Altria and Philip Morris both maintain high dividend yields because they are limited in how they can spend their money. The companies cannot pour money into advertising (like in decades past) due to regulations both in the U.S. and abroad. Instead, they both maintain payout ratios of between 70% and 80% to the delight of their shareholders.

With such high payout ratios combined with declining cigarette volumes, you would think that Philip Morris and Altria would either not be growing or would be in decline. This is not the case. Both companies have shown the can grow earnings-per-share despite cigarette volume declines. Altria is expected to grow earnings-per-share at around 10% a year over the next several years. Philip Morris is expecting earnings-per-share growth of around 7% a year. Philip Morris growth expectations are lower due to currency effects from a strong U.S. dollar. If this trend were to reverse, Philip Morris would very likely outpace Altria's growth.

A combination of market share gains -- thanks to the industry-leading Marlboro brand -- and price increases in excess of tax increases combined with share repurchases have drive earnings growth for both Altria and Philip Morris. Going forward, the companies have an opportunity in tobacco product that is considered to be less dangerous to users' health.

Altria and Philip Morris are working together to develop heated tobacco and e-cigarette products. The agreement between the two companies gives Philip Morris the right to sell Altria's e-cigarette products internationally, and gives Altria the right to sell Philip Morris' upcoming heated-tobacco products in the U.S. Heated tobacco differs from e-cigarettes in that heated tobacco products heat real tobacco, releasing nicotine (at a faster rate than e-cigarettes) and tobacco flavor while reducing carcinogens by not burning the tobacco and creating smoke. The potential market for both e-cigarette and heated tobacco products is massive and could result in a growth renaissance for these two companies.

In addition to solid growth prospects and high dividend yields, both Altria and Philip Morris are reasonably priced. Altria trades for a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 17.1, while Philip Morris trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 16.7. The combination of high dividends, safety, growth, and value make Altria and (especially) Philip Morris International favorites of The 8 Rules of Dividend Investing.

Utilities: Southern Company & Consolidated Edison

Southern Company (SO - Get Report) is an electricity utility provider that serves 4.5 million customers in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Southern Company has a market cap of $41 billion, making it one of the largest publicly traded electric utilities in the U.S. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends since 1982.

Consolidated Edison (ED - Get Report) is an electric utility that primarily serves New York. The company has an $18 billion market cap and serves 3.3 million electricity customers and 1.1 million gas customers. Consolidated Edison is a Dividend Aristocrat thanks to its 40 years of consecutive dividend increases.

Both Southern Company and Consolidated Edison have high dividend yields. Consolidated Edison has a yield of 4.2%, while Southern company is currently yielding 4.6%. Both companies' high yields should appeal to income oriented investors.

Make no mistake, neither Consolidated Edison nor Southern Company will see rapid earnings-per-share growth in the future. Consolidated Edison is expected to grow earnings-per-share at just 2.5% a year over the next several years. Southern Company does not fare much better; it is expected to grow earnings-per-share at just 4% a year.

Despite their slow growth, these two high quality utilities should appeal to risk-averse dividend investors. Both Southern Company and Consolidated Edison have extremely low stock price volatilities. This means you get high dividends with less of the roller-coaster-ride of rising and falling stock prices that comes with investing in risky securities.

With that said, the utilities industry as a whole is not without its risks. Southern Company has fallen 7% and Consolidated Edison's stock price has declined 5% over the last quarter. These are big declines for utility stocks. These two utilities (and virtually all other utilities) have seen their stock prices fall over the last quarter due to fears that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year. When interest rates rise, assets that derive their value primarily from their high income payments fall in value. Much of the price declines from rising rates appears to have already been baked into current utility stock prices, making now an opportune time to pick up shares at less than their price three months ago.

 

 

 

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held PM.