The quest for sustainable long-term returns seems to be legendarily treacherous these days, but MoneyShow's Howard R. Gold, also of The Independent Agenda, has gathered a few suggestions from top income experts.

Investors love yield and hate risk. Why else would they still be dumping equities and chasing overvalued fixed-income investments like Treasuries, TIPS and high-yield bonds?

But the one bright spot is dividend-paying stocks: As of late August, $13.6 billion of investors' cash has flowed into dividend-stock and equity-income mutual funds this year.

Higher yields than Treasuries and the prospect of share-price appreciation make dividend-paying stocks look like the Holy Grail of investing. Yet certain sectors, such as consumer staples, already are in "nosebleed territory," Barron's recently reported.

And a couple of weeks ago, bond maven Marilyn Cohen called dividend-paying stocks "the most crowded trade ever."

Still, there must be something that pays out more than bonds without the ups and downs of, say, Facebook (FB) or Zynga (ZNGA).

Last week, I moderated a panel at the MoneyShow Chicago whose theme was income investing. A couple of the panelists I talked to later thought there were still opportunities in dividend investing-if you're selective.

 "There's still a...difference between what you can get in bonds and what you can get from dividend-paying stocks," said Roger Conrad, editor of Utility Forecaster.

And Mark Skousen, editor-in-chief of Forecasts & Strategies and the author or more than 25 books on economics and markets, was even more bullish. "We're in the sweet spot for income investing-it doesn't get better than this," he declared, pointing out that "alternative investments-savings accounts, T-bills, long-term Treasuries [have] just awful returns."

"People who are in those are scared," he continued. "They don't want to lose their principal."

But if they looked a little harder and took a bit more risk-as Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke wants us to-they might make more money and paradoxically be less exposed than they are in many bonds and bond funds.

Unlike bonds, said Conrad, "dividend-paying stocks follow the overall stock market. Historically there's not much of a link to bond yields."

So when interest rates start rising again, bonds could be hit harder than dividend-paying stocks. But which ones should people look at?

The iShares High Dividend Equity (HDV) and Vanguard Dividend Yield (VYM) ETFs have both beaten the S&P 500 during the past two years, though they have lagged recently. Both yield around 2.9%.

Skousen thinks you can find better yields by doing a little digging.

NEXT: Good Picks for Dividend Investors