This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series.

My real-money Rising Star Portfolio uses a smart screening process to find great stocks. Today, we're going hunting for the most attractive high-yielding companies out there -- those with businesses strong enough to hopefully avoid a devastating dividend cut.

Most people now recognize the power of dividend investing. Higher-yielding stocks tend to offer higher returns over time than low- or no-yield stocks, according to research from Jeremy Siegel and others. In fact, the 20 best-performing survivor stocks from the original S&P 500 in 1957 are all dividend payers.

What's more, reinvesting dividends acts as a "bear-market protector and return accelerator," according to Siegel. The extra shares purchased and accumulated at higher dividend yields during down periods help protect portfolios in falling markets, and when these extra shares rise in value in good times, they accelerate returns.

As the recent economic crisis illustrated all too well, however, you can't buy just any high-yielding stock. Dividends that get cut or suspended entirely can wreak havoc on a stock price -- and thus your portfolio.

Reducing the risk
Fortunately, you can take several steps to lessen your chances of buying one of these train wrecks. James Early, advisor of our Motley Fool Income Investor service, suggests looking at the payout ratio for starters. That's simply the percentage of a company's net income used to pay its dividend. Obviously, the higher the payout ratio, the tougher it is for a company to meet its dividend obligation. James looks for a payout ratio below 80% for safer companies and a sub-60% or even 50% payout for companies you consider risky.

To further stack the odds on your side, you can limit your search to companies that have grown their dividend over the past three years or so. That eliminates the less stable or erratic dividend payers.

I constructed a screen to find some promising high-yield, low-risk U.S. companies for further research. I made sure the stocks met the following criteria:

  1. Market cap > $1 billion
  2. Payout ratio < 60%
  3. Three-year dividend growth > 0%

Here are the top 10 highest yielders the screen produced.

Company

Market Cap
(in Millions)

Payout Ratio

3- Year Cumulative Dividend Growth

Dividend Yield

AT&T (NYSE: T) $177,010 49% 10% 5.9%
Avon Products $7,530 53% 17% 5.3%
W.P. Carey & Co. (NYSE: WPC) $1,758 49% 8% 5.1%
Alliance Resource Partners $2,809 48% 47% 5%
H&R Block (NYSE: HRB) $4,710 51% 6% 5%
FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE) $18,560 56% 54% 5%
Lockheed Martin $26,179 36% 79% 4.9%
Exelon (NYSE: EXC) $28,854 52% 12% 4.8%
PPL (NYSE: PPL) $17,147 54% 9% 4.7%
Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY) $48,209 46% 10% 4.7%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

These companies are now official candidates for my Rising Star Portfolio. To follow any of these companies, simply add them to your very own free, personalized watchlist. You may also be interested in our research report "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today." Claim your free copy.

Fool analyst Rex Moore is sanitized for your protection, but his Twitter feed isn't. He owns no companies mentioned here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Alliance Resource Partners and Exelon, as well as writing a covered strangle position on Exelon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.