Whether you're a beginning investor or a near-retiree, the importance of purchasing stocks that pay dividends cannot be overstated. Not only do companies that have quarterly or annual payouts provide you with a steady stream of income, they also have the potential for capital appreciation. Simply put, dividend stocks can you give your portfolio what almost no other investment can -- both income and growth.

At The Motley Fool, we're avid fans of dividends -- and not just because we like that steady stream of cash. Studies have shown that from 1972 to 2006, stocks in the S&P 500 that don't pay dividends have earned an average annual return of 4.1%; dividend stocks, however, have averaged a whopping 10.1% per year. That is an incredible difference -- one that you'd be crazy to not take advantage of!

But investing in dividends can be dangerous -- companies can cut, slash, or suspend dividends at any time, often without notice. Fortunately, there are several warnings signs that may alert you, and these red flags could be the crucial factor in determining whether or not a company is likely to continue paying its dividend. Today, let's drill beneath the surface and check out Altria (NYSE: MO).

What's on the surface?
Altria, which operates in the Tobacco industry, currently pays a dividend of 6.2%. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at, as the average dividend payer in the S&P 500, in 2009, sported a yield of 2%.

But what's more important than the dividend itself is Altria's ability to keep that that cash rolling. The first thing to look at is the company's reported dividends versus its reported earnings. If you happen to see dividend payments that are growing faster than earnings per share, it may be an initial signal that something just isn't right. Check out the graph below for details of the last five years:


Clearly, there doesn't seem to be a problem, here. Altria has been able to boost its earnings at an adequate pace and keep its dividends in check at the same time.

The more secure, the better
One of the most common metrics that investors use to judge the safety of a dividend is the payout ratio. This number tells you what percentage of net income is paid out to investors in the form of a dividend. Normally, anything above 50% is cause to look a bit further. According to the most recent data, Altria's payout ratio is 81%. Altria is obviously paying out a substantial portion of its net income in the form of a dividend. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- companies can increase their payout ratios over time, possibly because they are becoming more mature, or possibly because that's the best way to increase shareholder value. What's important is if there's enough cash on hand to support that high payout ratio, so let's look at free cash flow.

Free cash flow -- all the cash left over after subtracting out capital expenditures -- is used by firms to make acquisitions, develop new products, and of course, pay dividends! We can use a simple metric called the cash flow coverage ratio, which is cash per share divided by dividends per share. Normally, anything above 1.2 should make you feel comfortable; anything less, and you may have a problem on your hands. Altria's coverage ratio is 1.17, -- which isn't enough to make me feel comfortable as an investor. There could be a number of reasons the number is so low -- maybe it's typical for the industry, maybe there's a significant amount of debt coming due, or maybe Altria is simply less than stellar at managing its assets.

Either way, it's always beneficial to compare an investment with competitors, so in the chart below, I've included the above metrics with that of Altria's competitors and other high-performing consumer-goods companies. In addition, I've included the five-year dividend growth rate, which is also a very important indicator. If Altria can illustrate that it's grown dividends over the past five years then there's a good chance that it will continue to put shareholders first in the future. Check out how Altria stacks up below:

Company

DividendYield

PayoutRatio

Coverage Ratio

5-Year Compounded Dividend Growth Rate

Altria

6.2%

81%

1.17

-13.9%

Coca-Cola

3.2%

53%

1.76

9.9%

Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM)

4.5%

62%

1.89

N/A

British American Tobacco (NYSE: BTI)

4.5%

71%

1.73

19.4%

Colgate-Palmolive

2.8%

43%

3.11

12.9%

Imperial Tobacco (LSE: IMT)

4%

49%

4.08

8.2%

General Mills

3.3%

42%

2.45

9.1%

The Foolish bottom line
Only you can decide what numbers you're comfortable with in the end; sometimes a higher yield and a higher reward means additional risk. However, in this situation, Altria's payout ratio seems to be above the peer average, which means if you're a prudent investor, you may want to look elsewhere for the most secure payment possible The bottom line, however, is to make sure that with anything -- whether it be a dividend, a share repurchase, or an ordinary earnings report -- you do your own due diligence. Looking at all of the numbers in the best context possible is just the best place to start.

Jordan DiPietro owns no shares of any company mentioned. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Philip Morris International is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Altria and Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.