To Robert Shearer, skipper of the $23 billion BlackRock Equity Dividend fund, dividends are a no-brainer. The presence of dividends says a lot about a company's financial stewardship, Shearer says. It's simple: no cash, no dividends. "The discipline that paying a dividend instills in company management makes them better allocators of capital," he says. Otherwise, they might be swayed by financial folly, he argues.

It wasn't long ago that investors turned up their noses at dividends. In the go-go years of the late 1990s or mid-2000s, dividends were for fuddy-duddies. Companies increased shareholder value through growth, not returning cash.

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