Companies around the world are rewarding shareholders with the highest dividends in more than two decades compared with bond interest payments, even after the best start to a year for equities since 1994.

The 1,610 stocks in the MSCI World Index paid an average 2.7 percent of their share price in dividends as of last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with the 2.6 percent yield on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Corporate Index of 10,034 investment-grade bonds and 6.1 percent for 2,652 securities in the Barclays Global High-Yield Index. The gap versus the junk-bond index is the narrowest since at least 1995, the data show.

Bears say dividends don’t matter when stocks are near the most expensive level compared with estimated earnings in more than two years amid sluggish economic growth and looming polls in Italy and Germany. Bulls say yields of more than 10 percent on Limited Brands Inc., owner of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie chain, and GDF Suez SA, Europe’s largest utility by market value, mean equities remain undervalued.

“If you buy some quality equity, you can buy the dividend and get some dividend growth with it,” Jacob de Tusch-Lec, who helps oversee $19 billion at Artemis Investment Management LLP in London, said in a phone interview on Feb. 5. His Artemis Global Income Fund has beaten 99 percent of peers over the past year. “With bonds, you are not protected against inflation, you are selling any upside and you are not getting any income growth. Investors have been going lower and lower down the risk curve to get yield, but at one point some of those credit assets are no longer much safer than equities.”

January Jump

The MSCI World climbed 5 percent in January, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The index of stocks in 24 developed markets fell 0.5 percent last week and dropped 0.2 percent to 1,407.9 as of 8:17 a.m. in London today. It returned 128 percent including dividends from the market bottom in March 2009 through yesterday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with a 132 percent surge in the Barclays High-Yield debt gauge.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 pushed the world into a recession, central banks from the U.S. to Europe and Japan have cut interest rates to near zero and bought unprecedented amounts of bonds to drag down yields and spur an economic recovery. Cash held by MSCI World companies climbed to $3.4 trillion in 2012, the most in at least seven years, from $2.1 trillion in 2006, according to Bloomberg data.

Yield Search

Stocks have paid out less than bonds for much of the past five decades as equity investors focused on the potential for capital appreciation rather than income. The dividend yield on the MSCI World averaged 2.1 percent between 1997 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in September 2008, according to Bloomberg data. That compares with the 5 percent average yield paid by the Bank of America global corporate debt index and 10 percent on the Barclays junk-bond index.

“The search for yield has pushed the rates in credit to such a point that it’s quite difficult to see enormous value,” Matthew Merritt, who helps oversee $360 billion as head of multi-asset teams at Insight Investment Management in London, said in a Feb. 6 phone interview. “It’s guiding people towards equities, not necessarily because it’s an incredible environment for equities but because there is some support for equities.”