I've found what I think is one of the safest dividend-paying stocks on the planet.
During the past year, this company earned $8.6 billion in profits. It only distributed $4.6 billion in dividends. In other words, it could see its earnings fall more than 45% and still be able to maintain the dividend.
At the same time, this company's stock has seemingly ignored the ups and downs of the past few months. Instead, it has steadily beaten the market over the past year. Just take a look at the chart.
But let me tell you, it's not the billions of dollars in earnings that cover the dividend payment or strong performance in a rocky market that make me think this is one of the safest dividend stocks in the world.
It's how this company makes money that makes it so stable.
You see, when the economy is strong, people don't have a problem buying high-tech gadgets or spending bundles on luxuries. But as soon as the economy starts to head south, these expenses are the first to be cut.
But there are some goods that people always buy, regardless of the economy. These "necessities," and the companies that make them, often perform well -- even during times of financial uncertainty.
Take cigarettes for example. It doesn't matter much what the economy is doing, people will still buy cigarettes. That's good news for cigarette makers like Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM), which I think is one of the safest dividend payers on Earth.
Philip Morris International is the world's second-largest tobacco company (behind China National Tobacco) and holds almost 16% of the non-U.S. market. PMI's brands include seven of the world's top 15 names, including Marlboro, the number one cigarette brand worldwide.
This company is a spin-off of Altria's (NYSE: MO) cigarette business outside U.S. borders. Altria continues to sell its brands, including Marlboro and Merit, in the United States, but that business is slowly shrinking.
Outside the U.S., it's a different story.
For all of 2011, Philip Morris International saw its cigarette sales continue to rise, while revenues increased 14%.
Where is all of this new business coming from?
The emerging markets.
In particular, sales to Asia increased nearly 35% in 2011. As economies in developing regions expand, there's a substantial increase in the disposable incomes of their citizens. With a little more money in their wallets, a larger percentage of the population can afford premium international cigarettes.
But of course, we're most interested in the dividend -- and its safety.
Currently, Philip Morris International pays $0.77 per share every quarter. That amounts to $3.08 per share every year, or a 3.7% yield at recent prices.
That might not sound like much to write home about, but here's the kicker -- Philip Morris has raised the dividend 67.4% since 2008.
And the company can afford to keep increasing the dividend. Like I said earlier, PMI has a payout ratio of 55%, indicating plenty of room for future growth... and a near-zero risk of a cut at this time.
So though the shares currently yield 3.7%, investors who buy now are likely to see their yield on cost rise over time.
Now, I know investing in cigarettes may not be for everyone. But as an analyst, it's my job to find investment opportunities. And with a history of steady cash flow, the strongest brand names in the industry, and substantial emerging market growth, Philip Morris International is an ideal safety-first income play.
That doesn't mean this investment is risk-free -- nothing short of a savings account is. In fact, after a sharp move higher, conservative investors are likely to want to wait for a pullback before buying. However, I do think the stock ranks high among the safest dividend-payers in the world.
But Philip Morris is just one of the many income-paying prospects available from companies focused overseas. In fact, I think the abundance of international income investments is one of the market's best-kept secrets... there are literally thousands of high-yielders abroad.
To prove this, I recently had a member of StreetAuthority's research staff comprise a list of profitable companies with shares yielding 12% or more. What we found was pretty remarkable.
In total, my team found 227 common stocks paying dividends of 12% or higher. However, only 17 of these companies were located in the U.S. The other 210 were located in international markets.
That means if you want high-yielding stocks, then 92% of your opportunities are located outside the United States. But don't worry, you can buy many of these without even leaving the U.S. markets.
I have more details -- including several names and ticker symbols -- in a presentation I recently put together. Visit this link to read it now. In the presentation, I've even included the full list of the 17 U.S. companies yielding above 12%.
All the best,
StreetAuthority Co-founder, Chief Strategist -- Top 10 Stocks
Disclosure: Paul Tracy owns shares of PM. StreetAuthority own shares of PM as part of the company's various "real money" portfolios. In accordance with company policies, StreetAuthority always provides readers with at least 48 hours advance notice before buying or selling any securities in any "real money" model portfolio. Members of our staff are restricted from buying or selling any securities for two weeks after being featured in our advisories or on our website, as monitored by our compliance officer.