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.
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.
Weyerhaeuser yields 3.3%, a fair bit higher than the S&P's 2%.
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.
The payout ratio is somewhat less important when evaluating real estate investment trusts like Weyerhaeuser because they are required to pay out a high percentage of their earnings in the form of dividends in order to avoid paying corporate income taxes.
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 Weyerhaeuser stacks up next to its peers:
Plum Creek Timber
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
Weyerhaeuser's interest coverage is a bit low, though it is pretty common for companies in the lumber industry to carry a sizable debt load.
A large dividend is nice; a large growing dividend is even better. To support a growing dividend, we also want to see earnings growth.
The housing bust and recession haven't been kind to Weyerhaeuser. Over the past five years, earnings per share have shrunk at an average annual rate of 14%, while its dividend has shrunk at a 25% rate.
The Foolish bottom line
Weyerhaeuser has a moderate dividend yield. Like other forestry and paper-related companies, it carries a fairly significant debt burden, so earnings reliability is important. Dividend investors will want to keep an eye on the company's operating earnings to ensure that they remain reliable enough to make those large interest payments and still have leftovers for shareholders. To stay up-to-speed on Weyerhaeuser's progress, add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a free, personalized watchlist of your favorite stocks by clicking here.
Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. The Motley Fool owns shares of Weyerhaeuser, Rock-Tenn, and Plum Creek Timber. The Fool owns shares of and has created a covered strangle position on Plum Creek Timber. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.