(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The world of stock dividends appears to be at a kind of crossroads these days. The number of stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 that offer dividends is at its highest level in more than a decade — 402 out of the 500 are now paying dividends — and dividend payouts are expected to reach a new record of $275 billion in 2012.

At the same time, though, companies are not being all that generous with their money. Dividends are reaching record levels in large part because profits are reaching record levels. The overall payout ratio for the S&P 500 — the percentage of profits that get back to shareholders as dividends — is now at a record low of 29 percent, according to research conducted by the Web site the Motley Fool.

The case could be made that dividend investing has become ho-hum, since most stocks now pay out a dividend, but the payouts have been wholly unremarkable. But with corporate profits soaring, even a relatively low dividend payout can be significant 

Look at Apple, the most prominent stock that has recently jumped on the dividend bandwagon. Apple is one of 13 companies that began paying a regular dividend this year, pushing the number of dividend-payers in the S&P over that magic 400 level. Next Thursday, Apple is scheduled to issue only the second dividend in its history.

Apple’s payout ratio is still unimpressive — but that’s in large part because its profits are so massive. The quarterly dividend amounts to $2.65 per share, and the total payout will amount to around $2.5 billion. That’s an awful lot of money, but with its most recent quarterly profits sitting at $8.8 billion, the payout ratio is a below-par 20 percent, and the dividend yield is a scrawny 1.7 percent.

The company paying out the most in dividends right now is ExxonMobil, which is returning more than $10 billion a year to shareholders right now. It sounds impressive, when it’s phrased that way, but it’s really just 57 cents per share. With the stock price sitting at around $88, the dividend yield is just 2.6 percent, and the payout ratio just 21 percent. For the energy industry as a whole, the average payout ratio is 31 percent.

For those seeking more bang for their buck, one number that gets thrown around a lot is payout ratio. Many companies greatly exceed that S&P average of 29 percent. The stereotype for a high-dividend company is an established business that has reached maturity, and many older, stable stocks also offer dividend payouts high above the rate offered by Apple or ExxonMobil. Honeywell, for example, has a payout ratio of 57.6 percent. General Electric’s is virtually identical, at 57.5 percent. 

When these numbers get into the ridiculous range, though, they deserve a severe discounting. For instance, the entire telecommunications sector offered an aggregate payout ratio of 162 percent for the first quarter of 2012, according to data compiled by FactSet research. The primary cause for that is that two telecom giants, AT&T and Verizon, both reported losses for the quarter.

But while that number should be discounted, it does indicate that telecom is a good sector to look at for solid dividend investing. Telecommunications Services leads all sectors with a 4.8 percent dividend yield, with Utilities close behind at 4.0 percent.

All that dividend income — combined with historic lows in U.S. Treasury bonds — has led to a landscape in which the S&P’s dividend yield is now surpassing the return on the ten-year Treasury. That’s only happened two other times in the past 20 years. That sort of scenario would argue for this being an excellent time to pursue dividend stocks. What could be better than an investment throwing off more cash than the epitome of a safe haven?

At this point, the key advantage may simply be investing in stocks rather than seeking out dividend-payers. For one thing, as noted above, with 80 percent of the S&P 500 paying a dividend, no matter where your money goes in equities, you’re likely to wind up with a dividend.

And the distinction in price between dividend stocks and non-dividend stocks has been shrinking lately.  Companies offer dividends to their shareholders in part to make them more attractive to investors; in general, non-dividend stocks have higher price-to-earnings ratios than dividend stocks. The monthly median difference between the two has been 1.36 percent over the past 20 years, again according to FactSet. By the end of the first quarter of 2012, it was down to 0.24 percent.

So if most stocks pay dividends, and there’s very little price difference between dividend-paying and non-dividend stocks, is there much of a reason to specifically pursue dividends? Maybe it’s a time to take another look at equities as a whole, and just enjoy the dividends that result.

For more from Tom Nawrocki, see:

America’s 10 Biggest IPOs

The Social-Media Stock Roller Coaster

What Would QE3 Bring?