Is Royal Dutch Shell plc (7.43%) or Legal & General Group plc (5.95%) the better income play today?

These are tough times for growth investors, glory days for income seekers. Even though a number of top FTSE 100 names slashed their dividends last year, there are still some amazing yields out there. Here are two of them.

Unsure of Shell

The glaringly obvious problem with oil major Royal Dutch Shell (LSE: RDSB) is that its future will largely be determined by a factor it can’t control, the price of crude. While there’s plenty management can do to help the company withstand falling prices, such as slashing exploration, capex and staffing costs, it can’t change the fundamental fact that where oil goes, revenues follow. And not just its revenues, but its share price, and even more worryingly for investors, the ability to service its dividend.

Despite a half-hearted rally in recent weeks, Shell’s share price is down more than 15% over the past year. The lower share price means a higher yield, and with management desperate to maintain Shell’s impressive run of never cutting the dividend since the war, it now offers a whopping 7.43% income. The big question of course is whether this can be sustained.

Brent crude has jumped from $27 a barrel in mid-January to around $48 today. What happens next depends on a host of variables, and although production is falling, the glut has yet to be cleared. If the oil price continues to push higher then the dividend will probably be secure. But if it slips, watch out. Trading at just 8.1 times earnings, Shell is a bet worth taking, on the assumption that the world drives on oil and will continue to do so for many years. But this isn’t a surefire bet. Shell is also giving off the slight whiff of a value trap.

Generally speaking

Insurer Legal & General Group (LSE: LGEN) has suffered a tough year growth-wise, with its share price also down around 15%. Again, it’s at the mercy of events it can’t control, in this case global investment sentiment. As a major supplier of index-tracking funds it can only watch passively as plunging stock markets sink its own share price. It took a pasting during January’s market rout and has only partially recovered.

Long-term investors can live with that, as it has grown 93% over five years, whereas Shell is down 23%. L&G has also fought back impressively against falling annuity sales in the wake of Chancellor George Osborne’s pension freedom reforms, by developing new retirement income plans, and expanding its bulk annuity business. Only today, it announced the purchase of £38bn of annuity business from insurer Aegon.

L&G’s full-year profits were positive, with net cash generation and operating profit both rising 14%, and earnings per share up 11%. Investors were delighted by the 19% increase in its full-year dividend. Today’s 5.95% yield isn’t quite as dramatic as Shell’s return, but looks more sustainable. Trading at 12.13 times earnings, L&G is more expensive than Shell  and isn’t without risk, as the share price will inevitably suffer if markets fall again.

Now looks like a good entry point for both these stocks but I would say that Shell’s dividend now looks the shakier of the two.

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Harvey Jones has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Royal Dutch Shell B. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.