Why GlaxoSmithKline plc, BAE Systems plc & Imperial Brands plc are top dividend picks

A whole host of FTSE 100 companies have cut their dividends over the past year, reminding investors once again that even blue-chip businesses can’t guarantee their payouts.

Despite what has been touted as the world’s gradual return to economic health after the 2008/9 financial crisis, we’ve recently seen payouts slashed by companies across a range of industries: for example, Barclays in the banking sector, Rolls-Royce in aerospace, Centrica in utilities, and Rio Tinto and just about every other company in the mining sector.

It’s an unnerving situation, but I reckon investors can reduce their chances of dividend disappointment by backing GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK), BAE Systems (LSE: BA) and Imperial Brands (LSE: IMB).

Improving health

The traditional defensive qualities of big pharma have been rather tested in recent years by a spate of blockbuster patent expiries, the rise of generics and a general tightening of government healthcare budgets.

Top FTSE 100 pharma group GlaxoSmithKline has suffered no less than its peers, but the days of earnings declines and talk of elevated debt being a threat to its dividend are receding.

The company reported an 8% rise in sales and core earnings for the first quarter of the current year, and gave guidance of 10-12% earnings growth for the full year. And management expects this to be just the start of a new era of strong growth.

The board intends to hold the dividend at 80p through to 2017, and I suspect a maintained dividend — or modest, inflation-matching growth — may extend a bit beyond 2017 as the company rebuilds dividend cover. However, the shares appear worth buying today at 1,450p, because the 5.5% yield on offer appears more than adequate compensation for a brighter medium- and longer-term future of growth

Solid defence

As with Glaxo, constrained government budgets in recent years haven’t been particularly helpful for defence firm BAE Systems. Nevertheless, the company has been able to deliver modest annual increases in the dividend, shielding shareholders from inflation.

And things are looking up, with the company pointing to recovering defence budgets, and growth in the group’s cyber and commercial businesses as reasons for optimism. Analysts see last year’s dividend growth of 2% accelerating to nearer 4% this year, giving a payout healthily covered 1.8 times by earnings, and a yield of 4.4% at a current share price of 490p. Again, this looks an attractive proposition.

A smokin’ 10%

At an investor day, today, Imperial Brands reaffirmed its commitment to deliver dividend growth of at least 10% a year over the medium-term. This is a continuation of the double-digit increases the company has been delivering for years, and is a testament to how well-managed and reliably cash-generative this tobacco group is.

In its half-year results announced last month, Imperial reported adjusted earnings growth of 20% and cash conversion of 105%, and the board said it is on track to meet full year expectations. As far as the dividend is concerned, the promised 10% increase gives a prospective yield of 4.1% at a current share price of 3,775p. This level of yield is not to be sniffed at, and becomes all the more attractive with the company’s commitment to double-digit annual increases over the medium-term.

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G A Chester has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended GlaxoSmithKline. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Barclays, Centrica, and Rio Tinto. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.