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 PNC (NYSE: PNC) 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.

PNC yields 2.4%, a bit higher than the S&P's 1.7%

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.

PNC's forward payout ratio is a reasonable 21%.

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 Tier 1 capital ratio is a commonly used leverage metric for banks that compares equity and reserves with total risk-weighted assets. In a non-financial crisis, a ratio above 13% is generally considered to be relatively conservative.

Let's examine how PNC stacks up next to its peers.


Tier 1 Capital Ratio

PNC 12.6%
BB&T (NYSE: BBT) 12.1%
Zions Bancorp (Nasdaq: ZION) 15.5%
SunTrust (NYSE: STI) 11.0%

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

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, PNC was able to grow its earnings per share at an annual rate of 6%. In 2009, the company cut its quarterly dividend from $0.66 to $0.10 to conserve capital during the financial crisis. Last quarter it was raised to $0.35. 

The Foolish bottom line
PNC exhibits a fairly clean dividend bill of health. It has a significant yield, a modest payout ratio, moderate leverage, and reasonable earnings growth.

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Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. 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.