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 Copper (NYSE: SCCO) 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.

Southern Copper yields 7.3% -- rather high and worthy of closer examination.

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.

Southern Copper's payout ratio is an aggressive 93%, though its free cash flow payout ratio is a more reasonable 61%.

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 Southern Copper stacks up next to its peers:


Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Interest Coverage Ratio

Southern Copper



Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX)



Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM)



Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK)



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

Southern Copper's debt burden appears higher than its peers, though the absolute level is moderate.

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, Southern Copper's earnings per share have grown 3% annually, while its dividend has grown at 7%.

The Foolish bottom line
Southern Copper exhibits a fairly clean dividend bill of health. Its payout ratio appears somewhat aggressive, however, so maintaining or growing those payouts will depend on the company's ability to expand production and the prices of its commodities can fetch.

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