Empirical evidence shows that "over the past 10 years, companies with the highest dividend growth within the broad S&P 1500 index outperformed those with the highest dividend yield but the lowest dividend growth by more than 120 percentage points, a gain of 159% for the former compared to a gain of 36% for the latter." Investors in pursuit of the best dividend growth stocks should scout through the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index, which comprises of blue-chip stocks that feature consistent dividend growth for at least 25 consecutive years. The index includes some of the best dividend growth stocks in the dividend-paying equities universe.
The best dividend growth stocks will boast a relatively high dividend yield between 2% and 4%, consistently high dividend growth year after year, as well as dividend payout ratios and the EPS and free cash flow per share growth capable of sustaining higher dividends in the future. Here is a quick overview of four such dividend stocks that are contenders to the title of the best dividend growth stocks among some of the best dividend-yielding equities.
Walgreen Co. (NYSE:WAG) is one of the potentially best dividend growth companies. The stock with a total market cap of $30 billion has a dividend yield of 3.2%. Its dividend payout ratio is low at 38% of earnings and 42% of free cash flow. The company has increased dividends for 37 years in a row. Over the past five years, its dividend and EPS grew at average annual rates of 23.8% and 11.3%, respectively. This year, the company boosted its dividend by 22.2%. The low payout ratios and the company's commitment to increasing shareholder value by raising dividends suggest that Walgreen Co. will likely sustain high dividend growth in the coming years. Its EPS growth, forecast to average 11.4% per year for the next five years, supports that view. The company's peer CVS Caremark Corporation (NYSE:CVS) pays a dividend yield of 1.4%, while Rite Aid Corporation (NYSE:RAD) does not pay any dividends. The ultimate competitor, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT), yields 2.2%.
Aflac Inc. (NYSE:AFL) is also a superb dividend growth stock. The supplemental health and life insurance company with operations in Japan and the United States pays a dividend yield of 3.0%. Its payout ratio is very low at 26% of earnings and only 6% of operating cash flow. The company has increased dividends for 29 years in a row. Aflac grew dividends at an average rate of 13.7% over the past five years. Its EPS growth averaged 7.2% per year over the past five years. Analysts expect that the insurer's EPS growth will accelerate to 11.1% per year for the next five years. The stock's low payout ratios and the relatively robust expected EPS growth suggest there is more room for sizable dividend hikes in the future. Aflac's competitors Unum Group (NYSE:UNM), CNO Financial Group (NYSE:CNO), and Allstate Corporation (NYSE:ALL) pay yields of 2.7%, 1.0%, and 2.6%, respectively.
Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) is another dividend aristocrat that is likely among the best dividend growth stocks. The $402 billion oil and natural gas giant-the world's single largest dividend payer-boasts a dividend yield of 2.7%. Its payout ratio is low at 28% of earnings and 46% of free cash flow. The company has raised dividends for 29 consecutive years. Over the past five years, it bolstered its dividends at an average rate of 8.6% per year. This year, Exxon Mobil hiked its dividend by a large 21%. The company's EPS expanded at an average rate of 5% over the past five years. The EPS growth is forecast to accelerate to 7.8% per year for the next five years. Exxon Mobil's peers ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) pay higher yields, of 4.7% and 3.3%, respectively. Given the large dividend hike this year, low payout ratios, a comparably lower yield relative to those of its main peers, and the expected acceleration in EPS growth, Exxon Mobil stands ready to continue to boost its dividends in the future. Billionaire Jim Simons's hedge fund initiated a brand new position in Exxon during the first quarter.
Illinois Tool Works (NYSE:ITW) is a dividend aristocrat with 47 years of consecutive dividend hikes. The $25.4 billion industrial products and equipment company pays a dividend yield of 2.6%. Its dividend payout ratio is 37% of earnings and 45% of free cash flow. The company has increased its dividend at an average rate of 12.3% per year over the past five years. The company's EPS expanded at an average rate of 8.2% per year over the past five years. Analysts forecast that the EPS growth will accelerate to nearly 12% per year for the next five years. The low payout ratios and a relatively robust EPS growth support expectations for a continued high dividend growth in the coming years. The company's competitors Dover Corp. (NYSE:DOV) and IDEX Corporation (NYSE:IEX) pay dividend yields of 2.4% and 2.1%, respectively. Activist investor Ralph Whitworth has a huge position in the company.
Also considered for this list were Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), McDonald's Corp. (NYSE:MCD), The Clorox Company (NYSE:CLX), and Medtronic (NYSE:MDT). P&G, which yields 3.6%, has seen strong dividend growth over the past five years; however, its payout ratios have become high (close to 70% of earnings and free cash flow). Yielding 3.1%, McDonald's is in a similar position, posting strong dividend growth on an elevated payout ratio of 67% of free cash flow. Also, its forecast average EPS growth is slowing for the next five years. The Clorox Company, with a dividend yield of 3.5%, hiked its dividend at a strong 15% annual pace while its EPS contracted at close to 7% per year over the past five years. As a result, this propelled the company's payout ratio to 75% of free cash flow. Finally, with a dividend yield of 2.6%, Medtronic boasts low payout ratios, but its dividend growth has decelerated substantially, from the average of 17.1% per year over the past five years to 7.2% this year. Still, Medtronic is a good dividend growth play.
Investors have plenty of options to create an optimal dividend growth portfolio. A closer look at the constituents of the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats index will reveal several top choices for strong dividend income.