ExxonMobil: Dividend Dynamo, or the Next Blowup?

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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 (NYS: 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 2.3%, about in-line with the S&P 500's 2.2%.

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 with 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 has a payout ratio of 24%. That may seem conservative -- and it is -- but exploration and production companies often have low payout ratios to conserve cash flow for capital projects.

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

ExxonMobil has a debt-to-equity ratio of just 10% and an interest coverage of 227.

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.

Company

5-Year Earnings-per-Share Growth

5-Year Dividends-per-Share Growth

ExxonMobil5%8%
ConocoPhillips (NYS: COP) (10%)10%
Chevron (NYS: CVX) 11%9%
BP (NYS: BP) 2%(15%)

Source: S&P Capital IQ.The Foolish bottom lineExxonMobil exhibits a strong dividend bill of health. It has a moderate yield, a modest payout ratio, a tiny debt burden, and a bit of long-term growth to boot. To stay up to speed on the top news and analysis on ExxonMobil, or any other stock, add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a free, personalized watchlist of your favorite stocks.

At the time this article was published Ilan Moscovitzdoesn't own shares of any company mentioned.You can follow him on Twitter, where he goes by@TMFDada.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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