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 Vector Group (NYSE: VGR) 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 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.

Vector Group yields 8.4% -- a pretty high yield but not particularly cause for concern.

2. Payout ratio
The payout ratio might be the most important metric for judging dividend sustainability. It compares the amount of money a company pays out in dividends to the amount it generates. 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.

Vector Group payout ratio is a very high 193% of net income.

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.

Let's examine how Vector stacks up next to its peers:

Company

Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Interest Coverage Ratio

Vector Group

N/M

        1

Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM)

306%

       12

Altria Group (NYSE: MO)

222%

        6

Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI)

62%

       12

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Vector Group's debt burden appears higher than even its highly leveraged peers. It also has negative equity.

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, Vector's earnings per share have grown 3% annually, while its dividend has grown at 5%.

The Foolish bottom line
While its yield in itself isn't particularly troubling, Vector's leverage and high payout seem like causes for concern for investors.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.