Southern Company: Dividend Dynamo or the Next Blowup?

Dividend investing is a tried-and-true strategy for generating strong, steady returns in economies both good and bad. But as corporate America's slew of dividend cuts and suspensions over the past few years has demonstrated, it's not enough simply to buy a high yield. You also need to make sure those payouts are sustainable.

Let's examine how Southern Company (NYSE: SO  ) stacks up in four critical areas to determine whether it's a dividend dynamo or a disaster in the making.

1. Yield
First and foremost, dividend investors like a large forward yield. But if a yield gets too high, it may reflect investors' doubts about the payout's sustainability. If investors had confidence in the stock, they'd be buying it, driving up the share price and shrinking the yield.

Southern yields 4.3%, considerably higher than the S&P 500's 1.9%.

2. Payout ratio
The payout ratio might be the most important metric for judging dividend sustainability. It compares the amount of money a company paid out in dividends last year to the earnings it generated. A ratio that's too high -- say, greater than 80% of earnings -- indicates that the company may be stretching to make payouts it can't afford, even when its dividend yield doesn't seem particularly high.

Southern has a moderately high payout ratio of 73%.

3. Balance sheet
The best dividend payers have the financial fortitude to fund growth and respond to whatever the economy and competitors throw at them. The interest coverage ratio indicates whether a company is having trouble meeting its interest payments -- any ratio less than five is a warning sign. Meanwhile, the debt-to-equity ratio is a good measure of a company's total debt burden.

Southern has a whopping debt-to-equity ratio of 114%, but its interest coverage rate is a reasonable 4.6 times, which is quite solid for the capital-intensive utility industry.

4. Growth
A large dividend is nice; a large growing dividend is even better. To support a growing dividend, we also want to see earnings growth.

Over the past five years, earnings per share have increased at an average annual rate of 4%, while its dividend has increased at a 4% rate.

The Foolish bottom line
So is Southern a dividend dynamo? It could very well be. The company has a large yield, a moderate payout ratio, manageable debt, and growth to boot. If you're looking for some other great dividend stocks, I suggest you check out "Secure Your Future With 9 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks," a special report from The Motley Fool about some serious dividend dynamos. I invite you to grab a free copy to discover everything you need to know about these nine generous dividend payers -- simply click here.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Southern. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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