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Finding Income in a Volatile Market

Sell-off adds luster to some dividend-paying stocks, advisers say

The turmoil that has seized financial markets may leave conservative, income-oriented investors with a feeling that there are few safe, productive places to keep their wealth.

Stocks have declined nearly 20 percent from the May high, but alternatives like money market accounts and bank deposits generally pay annual interest rates below 1 percent.

See also: What to do when the stock market slumps.

Treasury bonds, meanwhile, yield barely more than 2 percent — and you need to tie up your money for 10 years to be certain of getting it all back.

If you think your investment choices range between the unprofitable and the downright dangerous, it's no wonder. Yet, financial planners and portfolio managers assure us that it's still possible to get solid income. They warn, however, that you probably will have to take some risk — sensible risk.

"When you start thinking of the needs of older Americans, longevity can be a problem," said John Buckingham, chief investment officer of Al Frank Asset Management. "They need their money to last them. But if you don't want to take any risk whatsoever, what sort of return are you going to get?"

Buckingham believes that stocks offer an excellent long-term balance of risk and reward. The recent plunge has left share prices cheap, in his view, with stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average selling for roughly 11 times earnings, compared with the index's multi-decade average of 15.

The losses have helped to raise the dividend yield on the Dow to 2.8 percent, providing one of the very rare occasions when it has surpassed the yield on 10-year government bonds, recently yielding about 2.3 percent.

There are many large, solid, reasonably priced blue-chip companies with yields well above the market average that he advises income-focused investors to seek out.

"Investors need income, so they're going to have to take risk to fund their retirement," Buckingham said. "The best place, in my mind, is the stock market, where you can get quality companies with solid long-term prospects, and they give you healthy payments while you wait."

In contrast to stocks, bonds look quite expensive to many professionals. Interest rates have been low for years, and they have been pushed even lower in the last two weeks by panicky investors seeking refuge. They may not get it.

"Rates are so low, they can only go two ways, sideways for many years, producing negative [inflation-adjusted] returns, or they can go up," said Ron Roge, chief executive of R.W. Roge & Co., a Bohemia, N.Y., financial planning firm. "If you want to try to have some real returns after inflation and taxes, the only game left in town is dividend-paying equities."

After the last few weeks, it may seem like a game that investors can't win, but if you ignore the ups and downs and play long enough, Buckingham and Roge advise, you should come out ahead. And Mary Ann Bartels, an analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, sees another good omen in the decline and the high-dividend yield that has resulted from it.

She notes in a research report that on the rare occasions when the yield on the Dow has exceeded that of the long-term government bond, it "is a potentially bullish sign, as markets tend to find bottoms when this occurs.

You may also like: Stock vs. bond debate. >>

Conrad de Aenlle has written articles on finance and investment for more than 20 years.