By timestaff
April 24, 2013

Call it the income investor’s conundrum: To find anything resembling a decent bond yield these days, you have to be willing to forgo Treasuries and venture into corporate issues.

Yet many blue-chip companies that appeal to conservative investors are now paying shareholders more in dividends than bond owners are getting in interest, which hasn’t really been the case since the early 1950s.

This raises an intriguing question: Should you stick with the bonds or take a spin with the stocks?

“There are a lot of great sleep-at-night companies with dividend policies that deliver more income today and better growth going forward,” says James Morrow, manager of Fidelity Equity Income.

Yet the risks are exponentially greater with stocks. Sure, you can earn half a percentage point more or so in yield by going with equities. Even the bluest of blue chips, though, can lose half of their value in a roller-coaster market.

Fixed income never gets that scary. Even if it did, you could always hold on tight to your bonds until the ride comes to an end — at maturity, when you’ll recoup your investment. By doing so, you’d earn only the interest, but that’s likely to be the case anyway, as bond prices probably won’t rise much as the 30-year fixed-income bull winds down.

With equities, you get no guarantees of stable prices or future dividend checks.

So when does the stock make more sense than the bond? (This is not, by the way, a matter of changing your overall asset allocation. You hold bonds for diversification, not just income.)

To answer that, MONEY began by looking at large, industry-leading businesses with higher-than-average dividend yields and that have issued intermediate-term bonds with a yield to maturity — the rate you’d get by buying existing bonds today — greater than the 1.9% on 10-year Treasuries.

Screening out shares that have been too volatile of late or had disappointing dividend growth produced the field of six blue chips.

Fund managers and analysts then weighed in on whether the bond or the stock was the better deal for conservative income investors.

One key factor in their analysis: the payout ratio, the percentage of current earnings used for dividends. The lower the ratio, the better the chance a business can deliver solid dividend growth. The pros also assessed the relative strength of each stock and underlying risks, such as valuations.

Here are the verdicts.

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