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If you're an investor interested in dividends, you should understand the dividend payout ratio.

A payout ratio is the percentage of net income a company pays out to shareholders as a dividend. For example, Income Investor pick H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) paid out $1.43 per share in dividends over the trailing 12 months ended Aug. 1, 2007. Over the same time period, Heinz posted diluted earnings per share (EPS) of $2.41. Dividing $1.43 by $2.41 produces a payout ratio of 59%.

This ratio shows what the company is doing with its money. If a company is returning 75% of its earnings to shareholders, for example, it's not reinvesting much in its operations.

That can be OK, since reinvested earnings would sometimes return less than shareholders could get by investing the payout on their own. But in general, a high payout ratio means that you probably shouldn't expect rapid growth at the company. Analysts expect Heinz to grow by only 7% over the next five years - just less than its industry average.

For comparison's sake, here are some recent payout ratios for other companies, based on their last-12-month (LTM) results.

Company

Payout ratio (%)

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)

56.1

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)

27.1

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)

12.6

BP (NYSE:BP)

37.1

Boeing (NYSE:BA)

28.4

Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)

25.6

Data provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's.

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Heinz is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value picks.

Mike Kasprzyk contributed to this article, which was originally published by longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian. Mike does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.