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HomenetnetDividend party just getting started on Wall Street

Dividend party just getting started on Wall Street

While investors may have a hard time capturing the 30 percent stock market gains from 2013, the dividend train is likely to keep rolling along.

The percentage of companies expected to reward shareholders with dividends should hit a 17-year high in 2014, according to an estimate from Markit. Those in the are projected to pay $352 billion in dividends, after doling out $311.8 billion last year.

Some 422 companies, or 84 percent, of those in the index will participate, marking the highest rate since 1997.

"Dividends continue to be one of the few income-generating alternatives available to investors," Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices, said in a statement. "Interest rates have risen significantly but are still historically low, with alternative income-producing instruments also low."

Top 5 expected dividend payers in 2014

Company Payout in billions Year over year change
Apple 11.8 14.90%
Exxon Mobil 11.7 8.50%
AT&T 9.7 1.40%
Microsoft 8.9 20.20%
General Electric 8.7 10.30%

(Read more: Why the market could see a 17% drop in 2014)

Conventional wisdom suggests that dividend payers tend to fall out of favor in a rising rate environment as investors look elsewhere for yield. But, though rates have been on an upward trajectory, they remain low historically and still attractive to investors looking to preserve an income stream.

Markit has identified banks, automobiles and parts, and technology as three industries in which dividend increases could be the biggest.

The fourth quarter established solid momentum heading into the new year, with net increases up $12.7 billion—about 50 percent higher than a year ago when companies were hiking dividends in the wake of an expected rising tax environment.

"At this point, we expect [the first quarter] to be a very busy positive period for dividends, with 2014 setting another record for payments," Silverblatt said.

(Read more: This week may decide where stocks close out 2014)

In addition to the big turnout likely from the S&P 500, all 30 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average are likely to pay. ExxonMobil led the way in 2013, with an $11 billion dividend, as all 33 components—there were three replacements—paid.

On the S&P 500, Apple likely will set the pace with an expected $11.8 billion payout.

Stocknshares | Getty Images

The trend comes as the dueling economies between Wall Street and Main Street show ever-greater divergences. The S&P 500 is coming off a 29 percent year, but companies continue to turn in below-par plans for capital expenditures and hiring.

(Read more: Corporate deal-making ready to take off next year)

Some recent numbers suggest that trend could be turning.

The latest Purchase Managers Index reading indicated that capital expenditures could rise this year. The new orders index hit 62.4 in December. As the PMI is a diffusion index, anything over 50 indicates expansion.

The government shutdown in October "may have led to companies pausing a bit longer (based on the decline in confidence measures), but a rebound is occurring," analyst Don Rissmiller at Strategas said in a note. "We continue to believe that business spending is set to pick up, both in the U.S. and abroad."

But investors have penalized companies using the $1.9 trillion on the collective corporate balance sheet to expand business rather than reward shareholders. Until that trend changes, or interest rates rise appreciably, dividends are likely to remain in favor.

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBCcom.


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