The 15 Best S&P 500 Dividend Stocks of the Last 25 Years

 

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The S&P 500 had total returns of 7.2% a year over the last 25 years. At this rate, the S&P 500 doubled investor wealth every 10 years.

Investors often think of dividend stocks as stodgy slow growers that offer current income but little in the way of capital appreciation. This is often not the case. (Why dividend stocks have outperformed.)

In fact, if you look at the top 15 dividend stocks of the past 25 years, you'll see that even the worst of them way outperforms the market. 

To find the 15 best-performing dividend stocks of the last 25 years, we reviewed the dividend history of all dividend-paying stocks in the S&P 500. Businesses that paid dividends from 1990 through 2015 without missing more than one year were included as dividend stocks.

Then, the total return (including dividends) for all of these stocks was calculated. The 15 dividend stocks with the highest total returns over the last 25 years are analyzed below.

15. The Sherwin-Williams Company (SHW)

Sherwin-Williams has averaged total returns of 16.7% a year since 1990. Sherwin-Williams has doubled investor wealth in less than five years on average over the last 2.5 decades.

The company is not new to success. Sherwin-Williams was founded in 1866 and has increased its dividend payments each year since 1979. The company's long dividend history makes it a member of the exclusive Dividend Aristocrats Index.

Sherwin-Williams sells branded paint and coating products under a variety of names, including: Dutch Boy, Krylon, Minwax, and Thompson's Water Seal. The company has operations in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, but the vast majority of its stores and profits are generated in North America. Sherwin-Williams operates over 4,000 paint stores, with about 90% of them based in the United States.

Sherwin-Williams has managed to grow earnings per share at 11.6% a year over the last decade. Much of that growth has come in the last few years. Sherwin-Williams has doubled its EPS since 2011.

New-home buying in the United States is fueling growth for the company, which tends to see rapid earnings growth when the real-estate market expands, and modest declines when it contracts.

For much of the 1990s and mid-2000s, Sherwin-Williams' price-to-earnings ratio was less than that of the S&P 500. Excellent recent results have caused Sherwin-Williams' P/E ratio to jump. Sherwin-Williams stock is currently trading at a P/E of 29.4. The company appears overvalued at current prices.

earnings per share are expected to grow at around 13% a year over the next several years. In addition, the company has a 1% dividend yield for expected total returns of 14% a year over the next several years before valuation multiple changes.

14. Vornado Realty (VNO)

Vornado Realty has compounded investor wealth at 16.9% a year since 1990.

Vornado Realty is one of the largest real-estate investment trusts (REITs) in the United States. The majority of the company's assets are located in New York and Washington, D.C. The company's real-estate portfolio is made up primarily of office buildings and retail locations.

In addition to real estate, Vornado Realty also owns 33% of Toys"R"Us and 33% of New York-based REIT Alexander's (ALX). Vornado Realty has a market cap of $18.3 billion and was founded in 1982.

Vornado Realty is focusing heavily on the office segment of New York real estate, while divesting non-core assets. The company recently sold a property in San Francisco for a $21.4 million gain and also sold a 1.35 million square-foot mall in Virginia for a $7.8 million gain.

On the purchasing side, Vornado recently increased its ownership in Times Square Hotel from 11% to 33%. The company also recently purchased a 437,000 square foot office building in Queens, New York, for $142 million. In its largest recent move, Vornado also acquired a $355 million property in Manhattan.

Vornado's focus on high-quality New York real-estate assets should prove beneficial for long-term shareholders. Real estate in New York is limited. As the city grows, property values should grow over time.

Unfortunately for shareholders, Vornado appears overvalued at current prices. The company has a dividend yield of 2.6%. While this is not bad for a normal dividend growth stock, this is very low for a REIT. The company maintained a dividend yield around 5% from 2000 through 2004, and a dividend yield over 3% for large parts of the last decade.

13. Harley-Davidson (HOG)

Harley Davidson has given investors average total returns of 17.1% a year since 1990. Much of those returns came between 1990 and 2000, when the stock returned an amazing 38.5% a year.

Harley-Davidson is the only major heavy motorcycle manufacturer in the United States. Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903. The company has grown rapidly over the last 100+ years. Today, Harley-Davidson has a market cap of $11.4 billion.

Harley-Davidson has struggled over the last decade. The company still has not eclipsed EPS highs set in 2006.

The company tends to do poorly during recessions. Consumers simply have less money to purchase expensive motorcycles during recessions. As a result, Harley-Davidson barely managed to remain profitable during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. The company cut its dividend payments to $0.40 in 2009, from $1.29 a share in 2008, due to the recession.

Poor recession performance and a "lost decade" make Harley-Davidson stock sound like a poor investment. But that is not the case.

Long-term growth prospects remain bright for Harley-Davidson. The company has a strong product pipeline. Harley-Davidson is also pushing to grow internationally and appeal to a younger audience. The company is expected to grow earnings per share between 8% and 11% a year over the next years, assuming the economy remains strong.

In addition to favorable growth prospects, Harley-Davidson stock is cheap. The company is trading at a P/E ratio of only 14. The company traded for an average P/E of 17 from 2011 through 2014. Shares of Harley-Davidson are likely undervalued at current prices. Any sort of good news for the company could increase the P/E and cause share-price appreciation.

12. Lennar Corporation (LEN)

Lennar compounded shareholder value at 17.2% a year over the last 25 years.

Lennar is the largest publicly traded residential construction company in the United States based on market cap. The company was founded in 1954 and is based in Miami, Florida.

The company's dividend yield is much smaller than what most dividend investors would prefer. Lennar currently has a dividend yield of just 0.3%.

Lennar's hyper-conservative dividend policy is a result of its near collapse in the Great Recession. In 2005, Lennar had earnings per share of $8.17. Times were good. Loose mortgage lending practices and cheap financing made buying homes easy for everyone, even those without the means to do so.

This caused Lennar's business to grow rapidly. Then, the Great Recession hit. Lennar lost more than $3.4 billion between 2007 and 2009. From 2010 through 2014, the company's earnings were less than $900 million.

Lennar's best days appear to be behind it. The company experienced truly rapid growth from 1990 through 2005. The company's excellent performance over this time period is the reason it is the dividend stock with the 12th highest returns from 1990 to now.

The Lennar of today is different from the Lennar of 1990. The company is heavily indebted. Lennar carries about $6.4 billion in debt on its balance sheet, with around $850 million in cash. The company has an interest coverage ratio of 4.7.

This ratio may be acceptable for a business with highly stable earnings, but that's something Lennar simply doesn't have. The company performs very poorly during recessions. If another protracted recession were to hit, Lennar would have a difficult time servicing its debt payments.

11. Family Dollar Stores (FDO)

Family Dollar Stores grew shareholder wealth at 17.6% a year over the last 25 years.

Family Dollar is a Dividend Aristocrat, but not for long. The company will soon be acquired by Dollar Tree (DLTR). The deal was expected to close in the first quarter of 2015, but was held up due to antitrust concerns. The acquisition will close in the next several months, once Family Dollar disposes of 330 stores to Sycamore Partners.

Family Dollar's amazing financial performance over the last 25 years made the company a prime asset ripe for acquisition.

Family Dollar was founded in 1959. The company has grown consistently over the last decade as it opened stores throughout the United States. The company has around 8,000 locations across the country.

Value is Family Dollar's focus. The company seeks to provide consumables, home products, apparel and electronics at discounts to price-conscious consumers. Family Dollar has had the most success in consumables (food), with around 70% of sales coming from this category.

Family Dollar focuses on a relatively small store footprint. This saves it from competing directly with industry giant Wal-Mart (WMT). The average square footage of a Family Dollar store is just 7,200, compared to the average WalGreen's (WBA) store size of 11,000 square feet.

Family Dollar is one of three Dividend Aristocrats that have announced they will be acquired in the last year. The other two are insurer Chubb (CB), which is being acquired by ACE Limited, and diversified chemical manufacturer Sigma-Aldrich, being acquired by Germany-based Merck.

10. T. Rowe Price Group (TROW)

T. Rowe Price Group has a compound annual return of 18.2% a year over the last 25 years.

The company is one of the largest asset managers in the world. T. Rowe Price has around $750 billion in assets under management. The company provides retirement plans, mutual funds, separately managed accounts, and a broad array of other financial and investment services.

T. Rowe Price is a Dividend Aristocrat thanks to its 28 consecutive years of dividend increases. The company's long growth streak is evidence of a competitive advantage.

T. Rowe Price's competitive advantage comes from its well respected brand name in the mutual fund industry. The majority of its profits come from mutual funds.

This makes outperformance relative to peers critical for long-term success. Fortunately for T. Rowe Price shareholders, the company's mutual funds have outperformed their peers 82% of the time over the last decade.

T. Rowe Price's business model is heavily correlated with the rise and fall of the stock market. When stocks go up, the company's fund values go up as well, which results in more asset management fees. Bull markets cause more investors to buy funds, further boosting asset management fees.

As one would expect, bear markets are bad for T. Rowe Price. Falling share prices mean fewer assets under management and therefore lower asset management fees. During the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, T. Rowe Price saw EPS decline from a high of $2.40 to a low of $1.65.

Owning shares of T. Rowe Price is like investing in the S&P 500, with a few key advantages. First, investors should expect earnings growth of 7% a year, in line with the long-term historical average growth rate of the S&P 500. The difference is, T. Rowe Price will likely continue to gain market share in the mutual fund industry thanks to its outperformance versus peers. This means that T. Rowe Price will likely outperform the S&P 500 over long periods of time.

Additionally, the company is very shareholder friendly. T. Rowe Price recently paid a special dividend of $2 per share. The stock also has a 2.6% dividend yield -- higher than the S&P 500's 2% dividend yield. Finally, T. Rowe Price actively repurchases its shares, which further boosts EPS growth.

Investors should expect total returns of 11% to 13% a year from T. Rowe Price going forward. Returns will come from stock market growth (7%), dividends and share repurchases (4%), and market share gains in the mutual fund industry (0% to 2%).

As an added bonus, T. Rowe Price is trading below the P/E ratio of the S&P 500. The company currently has a P/E of 17.8, versus 20.7 for the S&P 500.

9. General Dynamics (GD)

General Dynamics has returned 18.5% a year for shareholders over the last 25 years. The company operates in 4 segments:

  • Aerospace -- 26% of sales
  • Combat Systems -- 20% of sales
  • Marine Systems -- 21% of sales
  • Information Systems & Technology -- 33% of sales

Around 60% of the company's sales are to one giant customer: The United States government. The U.S. is perhaps the most reliable customer in the world because it can raise a virtually unlimited supply of funds by taxing its citizens.

General Dynamics' strong relationship with the government has led to decades of stable growth. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends every year since 1981. Over the last decade, General Dynamics compounded EPS at 8.9% a year.

Earnings per share are expected to continue growing at around 9% a year for General Dynamics. The company also has a 1.8% dividend yield. Investors should expect total returns from General Dynamics of 10%+ a year from both EPS growth and dividends.

General Dynamics is currently trading for a P/E ratio of just 18. The company's P/E is about 10% lower than the S&P 500's, despite General Dynamics having better growth prospects over the next several years.

Dividend growth investors should consider General Dynamics as a long-term investment in the military industry. The company offers investors solid returns, dividend growth and safety along with a fair P/E. Total returns likely will be under the company's historical 18.5% a year, but should still be in double digits.

8. Nike (NKE)

Nike has had quite a run (pun intended) over the last quarter-century, compounding shareholder wealth at 18.8% a year over this timeframe.

Nike was founded in 1964 and is now the world's largest sporting apparel company. Nike now generates over $30 billion in sales a year and has a market capitalization approaching $100 billion.

Nike is a shareholder-friendly business. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends each year since 1987, when it first started paying dividends.

The last 25 years have been very kind to Nike. The company has expanded globally. Nike now generates about 50% of its EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) in the United States, and 50% internationally. The Chinese market is particularly important to Nike.

Nike has managed to grow rapidly, thanks to excellent advertising. The company currently spends around $3 billion a year on advertising. Nike's "swoosh" logo and "Just Do It" slogan are extremely well known. Nike pioneered the celebrity athlete endorsement strategy in athletic apparel. The company regularly works with top athletic celebrities, including LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Despite its massive size, Nike is still a growth company. Nike has increased EPS at 11.4% a year over the last decade. Growth is accelerating. The company is capitalizing in the trend for "sports leisurewear" as more consumers are wearing athletic clothing for everyday outings rather than for sports. Nike's EPS in fiscal 2015 surged 25%.

Nike is a high-quality business. The company is very shareholder-friendly. Unfortunately, Nike shareholders will likely not see as high of returns going forward for one simple reason: The stock appears to be overvalued. Nike is currently trading for a P/E of around 30. The P/E had been under 20 for much of the last decade. Now is not the time to buy into Nike.

7. Public Storage (PSA)

Public Storage has delivered total returns of 19.2% a year over the last 25 years. The company was founded in 1972 and has grown to become the largest operator of self-storage facilities in the world, serving more than 1 million customers.

Public Storage has paid steady or increasing dividends, excluding special dividends, for 25 consecutive years. The company is organized as a REIT and is required to pay out the bulk of its earnings as dividends.

Over the last decade, Public Storage has compounded EPS at 11.5% a year. Public Storage is highly profitable. The company has an operating margin of around 68%. For comparison, Apple (AAPL) has an operating margin of 33%. It is shocking that storage space is a much higher-margin business than smart phones.

In addition to high margins, Public Storage also has a very safe balance sheet. The company has just $59 million in total debt. This is a very tiny amount of debt, considering the company generated $1.1 billion in profit last year.

Public Storage stock currently has a dividend yield of 3.4%. The company pays out virtually all of its earnings as dividends. Public Storage is currently trading for a P/E of 36.6. The P/E has more than doubled since 2005.

Public Storage is another example of an extremely high-quality business with shareholder-friendly management that is unfortunately trading at a lofty valuation. This company would be a strong buy if its P/E were to decline significantly.

6. Home Depot (HD) and 5. Lowe's (LOW)

Home Depot and Lowe's are direct competitors in the United States home-improvement industry. Investors in either company have been very satisfied over the last 25 years. Home Depot has compounded shareholder wealth at 19.3% a year, versus 19.6% a year for Lowe's.

While both companies have virtually identical business models and growth over the last quarter-century, one is significantly older than the other. Lowe's was founded in 1946, while Home Depot was founded in 1978. Lowe's has increased its dividend payments for 51 consecutive years. Click here to see a list of all 16 Dividend Kings with 50+ years of consecutive dividend increases. Home Depot has "only" paid steady or increasing dividends since 1988.

Home Depot holds a slight edge in EPS growth over the last decade, with gains of 5.9% a year compared with 4.9% a year for Lowe's.

Both companies' growth has slowed significantly since earlier decades for two primary reasons. First, the home-improvement market in the United States is largely saturated. There is only a finite amount of room to expand in the country, and both Lowe's and Home Depot have already covered the most lucrative store locations.

Secondly, the Great Recession impeded EPS growth for both Lowe's and Home Depot. Lowe's saw EPS fall from a high of $1.99 to $1.21 during the Great Recession. Home Depot's earnings fell from a high of $2.79 to $1.66.

Both Lowe's and Home Depot have done well since the Great Recession. These two companies tend to see rapid growth when the economy is strong, but steep declines when the economy and housing markets suffer.

Recent success for both companies has driven up the P/E. Lowe's is trading at a P/E ratio of 23.7, while Home Depot is at 23.1. Both companies have had P/E ratios well under 20 for much of the last decade. Both companies appear somewhat overvalued at current prices.

4. The TJX Companies (TJX)

TJX is the largest department store in the United States based on market cap. The company's market cap is shown below, along with many of its competitors' market caps:

  • TJX market cap of $46.6 billion
  • Macy's (M) market cap of $24.1 billion
  • Kohl's (KSS) market cap of $12.3 billion
  • Dillard's (DDS) market cap of $4.2 billion
  • J.C. Penney (JCP) market cap of $2.6 billion
  • Sears  (SHLD) market cap of $2.4 billion

TJX is actually worth slightly more than Macy's, Kohl's, Dillard's, J.C. Penney, and Sears combined. Long-time TJX shareholders have been richly rewarded. The company has compounded shareholder wealth at 19.8% a year.

TJX owns Marshall's, TJ Maxx, Sierra Trading Post and HomeGoods. The company generates about 75% of its sales in the United States, with the remaining 25% coming from Canada and Europe.

Earnings have grown at a breathtaking 19.2% a year for TJX over the last decade. The demise of the department store has been greatly exaggerated, at least in TJX's case.

TJX's rapid growth is a result of its multiple competitive advantages. First, TJX is the low-cost operator in department stores. Think of it as "the Wal-Mart of department stores." The company is able to buy merchandise in bulk at reduced prices and pass the savings on to its customers.

TJX has also built an excellent supply chain. The company focuses on high inventory turns and lean inventory management to further increase margins and drive down prices. The company's focus on its supply chain has helped operating margins rise to 14.6% in 2014 from 8.5% in 2005.

Fortunately for investors, TJX still has much growth potential ahead. Unlike Home Depot and Lowe's, TJX's potential market is not yet saturated. The company currently operates around 3,400 stores. TJX's management believes the company can comfortably grow to 5,150 stores. TJX has increased its store count by about 4% a year over the last decade. The company still has another decade of growth before it reaches market saturation.

In total, earnings should grow between 9% and 12% a year for TJX over the next decade. In addition, the company has a 1.2% dividend yield and a payout ratio of just 23%. The company's dividend should grow significantly faster than EPS growth over the next several years. Investors in TJX can expect total returns of 10% to 13% a year going forward from EPS growth and dividend payment.

TJX currently trades at a P/E of 21.4. The company appears to be trading around fair value given its excellent growth prospects and shareholder-friendly management.

3. Charles Schwab (SCHW)

Charles Schwab is one of the leaders in the investment brokerage and advisory industry. The company's stock has returned 20.7% a year over the last 25 years.

Charles Schwab was founded in 1971. The company now manages $2.5 trillion in client assets and has a market cap of $45.9 billion.

The discount brokerage industry has become increasingly competitive over the last decade. As a result, Charles Schwab's growth has slowed. The company has compounded EPS at 6% a year over the last decade.

Charles Schwab is significantly affected by recessions. The company saw earnings decline to $0.47 from $1.06 during the Great Recession of 2007 through 2009. Bear markets cause asset values to decrease, reducing investment management fees for Charles Schwab. In addition, investors tend to pull out of markets during recessions, further reducing earnings for Charles Schwab.

While recessions are not good for Charles Schwab's business, rising interest rates are. The company currently has $1.55 trillion in interest earning assets. Charles Schwab is only realizing a net interest rate of 1.6% on these assets. Even at such a low interest rate, interest earnings still account for 39.1% of the company's total revenue.

For every percentage point interest rates rise, Charles Schwab should generate an extra $15.5 billion in earnings. Declining interest rates have retarded growth at Charles Schwab more than any other factor.

Charles Schwab stock currently has a dividend yield of just 0.7% -- well below average. In addition, the company is trading at a ridiculously high P/E of 36.8. Charles Schwab stock would make an interesting investment to profit from rising interest rates. Unfortunately, the stock is significantly overvalued at this time.

2. Paychex (PAYX)

Paychex is the second-largest publicly traded payroll processor in the United States. Only Automatic Data Processing (ADP) is larger.

Paychex was founded in 1971. The company has had an amazing run since that time. Paychex has compounded investor wealth at 21.1% a year over the last 25 years. The company now has a $17.2 billion market cap.

With that said, growth has slowed somewhat in recent years. Paychex has grown earnings at 6.5% a year over the last decade. It is reasonable to expect a similar level of EPS growth going forward.

Paychex growth will come from a unique growth driver: Increasing government regulation. As a human-resources and payroll business, Paychex benefits from increasing business regulation complexity. The more complex regulation is, the more necessary the company's services become.

Fortunately for Paychex, government regulation will likely continue. This is not a critique on politicians of either large political party in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats create new agencies, laws, regulations and standards. It is simply what lawmakers do.

Paychex currently offers investors a high 3.2% dividend yield. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends, excluding special dividends, each year since 1998. Paychex's management is committed to paying increasing dividends. It is very likely investors in Paychex will continue to see dividend growth going forward.

Dividend growth will likely be in line with the company's earnings growth. Paychex currently has a payout ratio of 82%. The company simply does not have the ability to increase dividends much faster than EPS growth going forward.

Investors in Paychex should expect total returns of between 9% and 10% a year. Returns will come from dividends (~3%) and EPS growth (6% to 7%).

Paychex is currently trading for a P/E of 25.6. The company appears overvalued at this time given its decent, but not spectacular, expected total returns.

1. UnitedHealth Group (UNH)

The best dividend stock to invest in over the last 25 years is UnitedHealth Group. The stock has averaged total returns of 27.5% a year over the last quarter century.

The stock continues to deliver high returns. UnitedHealth Group stock is up 44.3% in the last year. Not bad for a low-risk health-insurance stock.

UnitedHealth Group was founded in 1977. The company has grown to be the largest publicly traded health insurer in the United States. UnitedHealth Group currently has a market cap of $115 billion.

Earnings have grown at 9.7% a year over the last decade. Investors should not expect 20%+ total returns going forward from UnitedHealth Group. With that said, the company should still be able to reward shareholders with growth and dividend payments.

UnitedHealth Group currently has a 1.7% dividend yield. The company has paid steady or increasing dividends since 1990. It has a payout ratio of just 26%. The company will likely increase dividend payments significantly faster than earnings over the next several years as it raises its payout ratio.

Investors should expect total returns of around 11% to 12% a year from UnitedHealth Group going forward. Returns will come from dividends (~2%) and EPS growth (9% to 10%).

Unlike many of the other stocks on this list, UnitedHealth Group is not overvalued. The company's stock is likely trading around fair value based on its P/E of 19.4. The company is actually trading for a slightly lower P/E than the S&P 500, despite having better total return prospects and scoring high marks for safety.

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

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