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 ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) 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 forward 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.

ExxonMobil yields 2.4% -- somewhat higher than the market average.

2. Payout ratio
The payout ratio might be the most important metric for judging dividend sustainability. It compares the amount of money a company paid out in dividends last year to the earnings it generated. 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, even when its dividend yield doesn't seem particularly high.

ExxonMobil’s payout ratio is a modest 25%. On a free cash flow basis, that figure rises to 36%.

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.

ExxonMobil’s debt-to-equity ratio is 10%. Its interest coverage rate is 200 times.

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.

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


5-Year Annual Earnings-Per-Share Growth

5-Year Annual Dividend Growth




ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP)



Chevron (NYSE: CVX)



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

The Foolish bottom line
ExxonMobil displays a clean dividend bill of health. It has a modest payout ratio and limited leverage. Dividend investors might want to keep an eye on ExxonMobil's earnings growth to ensure that it can afford to continue dividend increases, but its conservative payout ratio may offer a little more room for that kind of dividend growth.

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