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 CenterPoint Energy (NYSE: CNP) stacks up. In this series, we consider four critical factors investors should examine in every dividend stock. We'll then tie it all together to look at whether CenterPoint Energy is 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.

CenterPoint Energy yields 3.9%, considerably 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.

CenterPoint Energy's payout ratio is a modest 25%.

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 -- a ratio less than 5 can be a warning sign. Meanwhile, the debt-to-equity ratio is a good measure of a company's total debt burden.

Let's see how CenterPoint Energy stacks up next to its peers:


Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Interest Coverage

CenterPoint Energy 215% 2 times
Entergy 134% 4 times
Ameren 88% 3 times
Xcel Energy 117% 3 times

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

The multi-utilities industry tends to employ a decent amount of leverage, largely because it's a capital-intensive industry with fairly reliable earnings.

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.

Here's how CenterPoint Energy has performed over the last few years:


5-Year Earnings-Per-Share Growth

5-Year Dividend-Per-Share Growth

CenterPoint Energy 5% 9%
Entergy 11% 9%
Ameren (3%) (10%)
Xcel Energy 5% 3%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

The Foolish bottom line
CenterPoint Energy exhibits a fairly clean dividend bill of health. It has a significant yield and moderate payout ratio. Given the company's leverage, however, dividend investors will want to keep an eye on earnings to make sure they remain consistent or, better yet, continue to grow. To stay up to speed on CenterPoint Energy's dividend 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.