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Dividends shone brightly in a disappointing 2011

The S&P ended where it started, but most stock mutual funds closed year with a loss due to fees.

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Financials (16 percent loss) » Funds that specialize in stocks of banks and other financial services companies were the worst-performing mutual fund category of 2011. It’s familiar territory. Financial sector funds also have the worst results over the past three- and five-year periods. In 2011, these stocks were hurt by the slowdown in the economic recovery; legal liability stemming from the flood of home foreclosures; and fears that debt-burdened European governments would fail to fully pay their debts, potentially hurting European and U.S. banks. Shares of Bank of America tumbled 60 percent.

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Technology (8 percent loss) » These stocks were among the top performers over the past three years, but the slowdown in the economic recovery hurt their 2011 results. There were exceptions, like Apple, whose shares gained nearly 25 percent as consumers continued to demand the latest versions of the iPhone and iPad.

As for dividends, the outlook remains strong. The cash coffers of companies in the S&P 500 are at a record $1 trillion, putting them in good position to keep increasing dividends. Payments rose about 16 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year, and more than half of S&P 500 companies increased their dividends.

S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt is quite confident about the outlook for dividends: "You can write the copy for next year now: ‘Dividends continue to increase for 2012.’ "

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