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 Altria
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.
Altria yields a whopping 5.2%, considerably higher than the S&P 500's 1.9%.
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.
Altria has a high payout ratio of 95%.
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.
Altria has a debt-to-equity ratio of 368% and an interest coverage rate of five times. But tobacco is a pretty stable business, so Altria, like many of its peers, can afford to carry a pretty significant amount of debt.
A large dividend is nice; a large growing dividend is even better. To support a growing dividend, we also want to see earnings growth.
Altria spun off Philip Morris International in 2008. Over the past three years, Altria's earnings per share have grown by 4% annually, while its quarterly dividend has increased from $0.35 to $0.41.
The Foolish bottom line
So is Altria a dividend dynamo? It could very well be. With a large yield and a bit of earnings growth to boot, the company looks set to make significant payouts. Of course, given its large debt burden and high payout ratio, dividend investors will want to keep an eye on the company's historically stable earnings to ensure that it's able to continue supporting and increasing those payouts over the coming years.
If you're looking for some other great dividend stocks, I also suggest you check out "Secure Your Future With 9 Rock-Solid Dividend Stocks," a special report from the Motley Fool about some serious dividend dynamos. I invite you to grab a free copy to discover everything you need to know about these nine generous dividend payers -- simply click here.