When it comes to reliable dividends, one of the most appealing sectors is tobacco. That’s because it has a highly defensive earnings profile, which means that sales and profitability are stable and resilient even during the most challenging economic circumstances.

Moreover, with demand for cigarettes being relatively price-inelastic, companies such as Imperial Brands (LSE: IMB) enjoy huge pricing potential. This provides investors with the prospect of mid-to-high-single-digit earnings growth over a sustained period. For example, Imperial is due to increase its bottom line by 12% this year and by a further 6% next year. This should allow it to raise dividends by 10.2% in the current financial year and by an additional 9.8% next year.

This means that Imperial will yield 4.2% this year and with it being a mature business operating in a mature industry, it doesn’t require a high dividend coverage ratio. That’s because its earnings are stable and capital expenditure requirements aren’t relatively high. As such, Imperial is likely to raise dividends at a faster rate than earnings over the medium term, since it has a dividend coverage ratio of 1.5. This is relatively high for a tobacco company, which could equate to rapidly rising shareholder payouts moving forward.

Power player

Also offering excellent income prospects is National Grid (LSE: NG). Like Imperial, it’s a highly defensive stock that’s likely to raise dividends by at least as much as inflation over the long run. For example, in the last five years they’ve increased by 3.8% per annum and this means that National Grid now yields 4.8%, which is around 20% higher than the yield of the wider index.

Looking ahead, National Grid could deliver a share price rise due to its appealing valuation. While many of its utility sector peers suffer from elevated political risk due to customer complaints regarding the cost of domestic energy, National Grid offers lower risk and trades on a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio that indicates upward rerating potential. For example, it has a P/E ratio of 15.3 and given its income prospects and defensive characteristics, this could easily move higher over the coming months and years.

Risks vs rewards

Meanwhile, Aberdeen Asset Management’s (LSE: AND) yield dwarfs those of National Grid and Imperial, with it yielding 7% at the present time. A key reason for this is the poor performance of the asset manager’s shares recently, with them falling by 9% in the last three months as investor sentiment towards China-focused stocks has plummeted. And with Aberdeen’s earnings set to fall by 34% in the current financial year, it’s little surprise that investor sentiment has deteriorated.

Although Aberdeen has a high yield, it’s not well covered by profit. For example, in the current year Aberdeen’s dividend payments are expected to be covered just 1.04 times by profit, which is arguably unsustainable in the long run. However, with profit due to grow next year by 4% and the company having a bright long-term outlook due to the potential for the Asian economy to grow, Aberdeen may not be required to slash dividends.

Therefore, while riskier than Imperial and National Grid, Aberdeen could still prove to be a sound income buy for the long haul.

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Peter Stephens owns shares of Aberdeen Asset Management, Imperial Brands and National Grid. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Aberdeen Asset Management. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.