The Most Promising Dividends in Gas Distribution

Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the gas distribution business industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just whyyou'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business' expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering intogas distribution
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the gas distribution industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

CompanyRecent Yield5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth RatePayout RatioAdd to Watchlist 
Crosstex Energy, L.P. (NAS: XTEX) 8.1%(30.5%)NMAdd
AGL Resources4.5%3.5%69%Add
Laclede Gas4.2%2.8%57%Add
Atmos Energy (NYS: ATO) 4.0%1.5%60%Add
Sempra Energy3.7%8.4%33%Add
MDU Resources Group (NYS: MDU) 3.3%4.9%51%Add
ONEOK (NYS: OKE) 2.8%10.2%69%Add
Southwest Gas2.8%4.6%47%Add
National Fuel Gas (NYS: NFG) 2.5%3.6%45%Add

Data: Motley Fool CAPS. NM = Not meaningful due to negative earnings

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with Crosstex Energy and Vectren, but they're not necessarily your best bets. Crosstex's dividend has shrunk over the past five years (though it has started growing again), while Vectren's is growing rather slowly.

Focusing too much on the dividend growth rate can also lead to trouble, if you end up with dividends growing at unsustainable rates or being issued by companies with steep payout ratios. These aren't concerns with the fastest growers in the above group, though.

You may notice, too, that some notable players in the industry, such as Clean Energy Fuels (NAS: CLNE) and Southwestern Energy (NYS: SWN) , aren't on the list. That's because smaller, fast-growing companies often prefer to plow any excess cash into further growth, rather than pay it out to shareholders.

Just right
As I see it, among the companies above, ONEOK and Vectren offer the best combination of dividend traits, sporting some solid income now and a good chance of dividend growth in the future. For more income now, favor Vectren. For speedier dividend growth, favor ONEOK.

Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry. Remember, though, that you may find even more attractive dividends elsewhere, such as in electric utilities or tobacco.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

Looking for someAll-Star dividend-paying stocks? Look no further.

At the time this article was published

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