3 Top Dividend Stocks to Buy Right Now

Reuben Gregg Brewer, George Budwell, and Brian Stoffel, The Motley Fool

If you're in search of dividend stocks to buy today, then look no further than global drug giant Novartis (NYSE: NVS), U.S. telecom leader Verizon (NYSE: VZ), and packaged food icon General Mills (NYSE: GIS). Although these dividend stocks' stories are different, the end of each tale is roughly the same: They seem to be stocks that income investors should buy right now.

All systems are go

George Budwell (Novartis): Swiss pharmaceutical titan Novartis is arguably one of the best dividend stocks to buy right now. Its shares took a bath following the spinoff of the company's eye care unit Alcon last week, but this pullback should turn out to be a gift for income investors and bargain hunters alike for a number of reasons.

The word dividend in yellow letters written above a yellow arrow going up

Image source: Getty Images

First up, Novartis announced that it won't alter its top-notch dividend program in the wake of this Alcon separation. That's certainly welcome news, as Alcon did make up a noteworthy slice of the drugmaker's annual revenue. In fact, the pharma giant noted that it plans to raise the dividend in the near future.

Novartis' core pharmaceutical business therefore appears to be on solid ground -- despite the company's decision to plow significant sums of money into more risky areas of the industry like gene therapy and the ongoing legal dispute with Amgen over the newly approved migraine medicine Aimovig.

The company's commitment to growing its dividend on a forward-looking basis should also reassure income-oriented investors about Novartis' rather aggressive M&A strategy. In short, Novartis has been one of the most active drug companies on the M&A scene over the past two years, and this trend is set to continue for the foreseeable future. 

But with a healthy cash position, strong and growing free cash flows, and improving margins on key pharmaceutical products, the drugmaker should have little trouble delivering on this promise to make future hikes to the dividend a priority. 

All told, Novartis has the pieces in place to be a solid income play for a long time to come.   

Don't overthink this one

Brian Stoffel (Verizon): As I still have three decades until retirement, I'm not a dividend investor. But if I was, Verizon would be at the top of my list. And there's little need to overthink why.

Currently, the company offers up a 4.2% dividend yield. Good luck finding a CD with anywhere near as hefty a payout. That dividend is also very sustainable. Over the past year, Verizon has brought in $17.7 billion in free cash flow. It has only needed to use 55% of this to make the dividend payment. In other words, the dividend is both safe and has room to grow.

Just as importantly, Verizon's business is strong. The company has the largest market share in wireless subscription plans in the nation -- by a hair over AT&T, and the fact that it was first to market with 5G technology gives it the upper hand for now.

And by buying shares now, you can get Verizon for under 14 times trailing free cash flow. I consider that to be a very fair price.

Investors are starting to notice

Reuben Gregg Brewer (General Mills): Packaged food giant General Mills has seen its stock rise 30% so far in 2019. But the stock remains 30% below its mid-2016 peak and the 3.8% yield is toward the high end of its historical range. The stock is still worth a close look from income investors -- but you had better act soon or you could miss the opportunity.

The big question to ask, however, is why the 2019 rally? An improved mood on Wall Street is one factor, but General Mills is also starting to show some progress as it works to deal with shifting consumer habits. The food maker was caught somewhat flat-footed when end customers shifted toward foods considered healthy and fresh. Results faltered and General Mills, like many peers, went on the offensive. It sold noncore assets (Green Giant), bought on-trend brands (Annie's and Blue Buffalo), and rejiggered core assets (Yoplait).

GIS Chart

GIS data by YCharts.

For a time, there was a lot of action but little to show for it. But results appear to be turning a corner, with organic sales and margins both improving in the fiscal third quarter. The company is now calling for earnings to be flat to slightly higher in fiscal 2019, versus the previous expectation for flat to slightly lower.

There are still issues. For example, leverage remains high following the large and debt fueled acquisition of Blue Buffalo. And while earnings may be better than expected, flat to slightly higher isn't exactly exciting news. However, with the stock still so far from its recent highs and the yield so robust, income investors would do well to take a deep dive before the trend toward improving results starts to gain more traction.

More From The Motley Fool

Brian Stoffel has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. George Budwell has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Reuben Gregg Brewer owns shares of General Mills. The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.