The yield on 10-year Treasuries dipped sharply below 2% again last week. Meanwhile, inflation, even on the official figures, is running at 3.4%.
For someone trying to preserve their capital in real terms, those two figures show a real problem - with bond investments, it's impossible.
Capital gains are out - the Dow Jones Industrial Average is below its level of five years ago and, adjusted for inflation, below its level of 10 years ago. Today, the only way you stand to get a decent deal out of your investments is through income stocks.
Not all income stocks are ideal. At one extreme, there are the blue chips that pay 3% to 4% in dividends and are referred to as "income stocks" because they don't show a great deal of growth. These include McDonalds Corp. (NYSE: MCD), The Procter & Gamble Co. (NYSE: PG) and the like.
Individually, some of these may be good "Buys" sometimes. But collectively, they are overpriced. Everybody has heard of them and the most optimistic assumptions about their steady growth are built into their stock price.
Even with all the analysts on Wall Street crawling over them, stuff can still go wrong - at which point their stock price will tank. While they may not be very risky, at their current prices there's all risk and little reward. Dividend yield of 3% to 4% is not much more than Treasuries and certainly doesn't pay you if something goes wrong. At $57 (equivalent to $570 today) in 2006-07, Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) was one of these stocks - within two years it was trading at $1.
At the opposite extreme, there are stocks that appear to have very high yields, but won't pay their dividend. Often, this is because the quoted yields are based on historical dividends, and hard times have hit the stock - Citigroup quoted some very fancy yields indeed on the way down! However, there are other snares in this area, which may be more difficult to spot: