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McBoring: Dividend stocks rule, but for how long?

April 11, 2013: 12:52 PM ET

Want yield with that? McDonald's and other stodgy dividend-paying stocks are soaring.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

The stock market is hotter than Tiger Woods' golf game. (Although I don't think he's going to win another green jacket at Augusta this weekend.)

But even though the Dow and S&P 500 are hitting new records on an almost daily basis, an interesting shift has taken place lately. Boring stocks are pulling a Justin Timberlake and bringing sexy back. (Perhaps in a suit & tie?)

McDonald's (MCD) is looking golden. Shares are up 16% this year. They've topped the century mark and are near an all-time high.

Other so-called consumer durable stocks, like Coca-Cola (KO), Pepsi (PEP) and Procter & Gamble (PG), are up 17% this year.

The Dow Jones Utility Average (DJU), a collection of 15 power companies, has gained 6.5% during the past month and 15% so far this year. That's better than the broader Dow, S&P and the Nasdaq. (It's electric. Boogie woogie woogie!)

Another kind of utility -- telecoms -- is also lighting up the market this year. AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) are each up about 16%.

And then there are health care stocks. The Health Care Select SPDR (XLV) has shot up nearly 20% this year, led by big gains in drug makers Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Pfizer (PFE) and Amgen (AMGN).

None of these companies scream growth. These aren't tech stocks, banks or retail.

Mickey D's profits are expected to rise just 8% this year while sales are forecast to increase by only 4%. Analysts are predicting just a 6% increase in earnings for Coke and a mere 2% rise in sales.

Many leading health care and utility companies are also likely to post slow and steady growth for their top and bottom lines (i.e. in the single digits) this year. Ditto for Ma Bell and Big Red.

Related: Quality stocks may still be attractive

These companies are not inherently exciting. But you know what is? Their dividends.

The dividend yield for McDonald's is 3%. So even with expectations for just a small earnings increase, the stock should give investors a nice lift when you factor in the income from the dividend.

Heck, with a 10-year Treasury still yielding less than 1.8% despite umpteen gajillion stories about how the bond bubble is about to burst, it makes sense for conservative investors to flock to solid blue chips over Treasuries.

Utilities have always been viewed as bond surrogates. With long-term interest rates near historic lows, their dividends stand out even more. Duke Energy (DUK), Southern Company (SO) and Consolidated Edison (ED) have dividends that yield more than 4%. So do AT&T and Verizon.

And the big drug companies are also magnets for income investors. Pfizer and J&J yield in excess of 3%.

Still, the fact that dividend stocks are doing so well is a bit alarming. It shows that even though the broader market is continuing to rise, investors may still be growing less confident with the direction of the U.S. economy. None of these companies are the types you want to own if GDP is about to go on a tear. They are all defensive by nature.

Related: Wall Street sours on gold

If investors were really flocking to riskier assets, you'd expect tech stocks to be doing well. That's not the case. The Nasdaq is the worst performer of the major indexes this year.

And many industrials, which should be thriving if the economy was actually on the mend, have been terrible performers this year.  There are only two Dow stocks down in 2013: Alcoa (AA) and Caterpillar (CAT). Not exactly an endorsement for the global market, particularly China.

What's more, CNNMoney's Fear & Greed Index is telling an interesting story lately. Although the overall index has returned to Greed mode following a couple of days in Neutral territory, the Safe Haven Demand indicator is still in Fear mode. That's a sign that many investors still want income over growth.

I'm not saying that the market is about to crash. Trying to call a top is a foolish and dangerous thing to do. But there's no denying that the now four-year old bull market is running out of steam. And investors need to remember that any time an asset goes up a lot in a short period of time (houses, Internet stocks and Bitcoins, anyone?) you need to be careful.

Related: Art of the sale: When should you sell a stock?

Boring dividend stocks are doing well now.  But a big yield won't prevent a stock from dropping if earnings start to deteriorate.

Just look at tech. Microsoft (MSFT), Intel (INTC) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) had started to move up recently on the notion that they too were now steady Eddie dividend stocks. Yesterday's shockingly bad numbers on PC sales in the first quarter put an end to that rally. Microsoft, Intel and HP are tumbling hard today.

Fundamentals still matter. They always have and always will.

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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