Why GE could retake throne as king of all dividend stocks

April 11, 2015, 12:32 AM UTC

For the better part of a century, General Electric was the king of all dividend stocks. It returned money to shareholders every quarter since 1899, and increased its payout for 32 years in a row, making it one of the S&P 500’s “Dividend Aristocrats.”

But it gave up its crown in 2009 when the toll of the financial crisis forced it to cut its dividend by more than two thirds—its only reduction since the Great Depression. Now, after the industrial conglomerate said Friday it would sell off its financial unit GE Capital, it’s poised to retake its position as a dividend growth stock for the ages with a promise to return more than $90 billion to investors by 2018 through share buybacks and dividends.

Following the market crash in 2008, GE began raising its dividend again in 2010. Since then, it has almost doubled its quarterly payout from 12 cents to 23 cents per share. While that amount is still lower than the pre-recession distribution of 31 cents per share, investors expect that the dividend will only accelerate from here—especially after GE rids itself of its financial arm.

“The dividend history of the company is important in judging management’s commitment to paying a dividend and sharing their success with shareholders,” says Jack Leslie, a portfolio manager at Miller/Howard who helps oversee $9 billion, including the Touchstone Premium Yield Equity Fund. “But investors need to be forward-looking and not focused exclusively on what happened in the past.”

Leslie bought GE shares after the company resumed increasing its dividend after the cut – and after appearing to be healthy enough to sustain that growth for a long time to come. Already, the stock has more than doubled in value since he bought it. “You want to make sure that [a company] can pay its creditors, pay its taxes, and have enough left over to pay and increase its dividends,” he says. “You want to see that the business is improving, and has the growth to support the dividend increases. “

Although GE said Friday that it does not plan to raise its dividend until after 2016 (it aims to complete the sale of GE Capital over the next two years), the company is expressing an almost unprecedented amount of shareholder friendliness. The $90 billion it intends to return to investors includes a $50 billion stock buyback that ties Apple (AAPL) for the biggest share repurchase ever.

Besides, without its financial businesses, GE will be able to loosen its purse strings and give away a lot more cash. Cutting ties with GE Capital means the parent company can likely free itself of the restrictions government regulators imposed on GE in the wake of the financial crisis—effectively treating it like a bank that is too big to fail. The “systemically important” status (which regulators also slapped on AIG (AIG), among others) has required GE to keep more money in its coffers than it otherwise might, and subjected its dividend and buyback plans to government approval.

GE said in its a statement that it is already working with regulators to remove the yoke of GE Capital’s designation as systemically important.

While GE shares (GE) rose nearly 11% Friday, the stock still has a dividend yield of 3.2%, and some investors see it as a value play, in addition to a sure-fire source of income.

“I just think a lot of investors have written them off and say to themselves, why own something that’s half industrial, half financial, when they can go out and recreate that by buying individual stocks?” says Tom Huber, manager of the $4.8 billion T. Rowe Price Dividend Growth Fund, who just recently bought GE again after avoiding it following the recession. “I guess that’s essentially what the opportunity is: As that business makes changes, the earnings stream is, in my opinion, more dependable and more durable, and there’s room for the valuation to improve.”

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