Stock Quotes in this Article: AMTD, FITB, MRK, PM, UNP

 BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- These five firms are getting ready to boost dividends. They just don’t know it yet.

There’s a lot of attention being hoisted on dividend stocks right now, and it’s easy to see why: when interest rates are sitting at record lows, investors are grasping for any means of earning income from their portfolios right now. That’s why it’s ironic that now’s such a good time to be a dividend investor.

The companies that make up the S&P 500 have more cash than ever before, they have higher profits than ever before, and they pay a bigger dividend yield than they have in the last two decades. So while other income-generating investments (like bonds or treasuries) aren’t much more than “safety-at-any-cost” investments right now, dividend stocks are pulling their weight.

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Today, we’re focusing in on five blue-chip stocks that look ready to boost their dividend payouts even more in 2012. In the past few months we’ve had some stellar success in finding future dividend hikes just by zeroing in on a few key factors. Now we’ll look at our crystal ball and try to do it again.

For our purposes, that “crystal ball” is composed of a few factors: namely a solid balance sheet, a low payout ratio, and a history of dividend hikes. While those items don’t guarantee dividend announcements in the next month or two, they do dramatically increase the odds that management will hike their cash payouts, especially as investors start to get antsy about this mid-2012 rally.

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Without further ado, here’s a look at five stocks that could be about to increase their dividend payments in the next quarter.

Merck

Big pharma has been an oasis for dividend investors, and $133 billion pharmaceutical firm Merck (MRK) is no exception. Already in 2012, shares of Merck are up 17% -- and that’s on top of the firm’s quarterly dividend payout. The firm currently pays out a 42-cent dividend, generating a 3.8% dividend yield at current price levels.

Merck is a diversified pharmaceutical firm that develops and markets drug therapies and vaccines worldwide. The firm acquired Schering-Plough in 2009, dramatically expanding its late-stage pipeline and growing its consumer products exposure. But like most of its major peers, Merck has the black clouds of patent losses lingering over its future. That’s a big part of why MRK has such a lofty yield right now.

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The Schering acquisition also left Merck with heftier U.S. exposure than before: nearly half of the firm’s sales come from the domestic market. And that’s a very good thing right now considering the resilience of the U.S. dollar (that effectively penalizes overseas earnings) and the impact that “Obamacare” will have on pharmaceutical volumes in the next few years.

With a deep net cash position on MRK’s balance sheet and significant cash generation capabilities, this stock looks primed to hike its payouts in the next quarter.

Philip Morris International

It’s been a good year for shareholders of Philip Morris International (PM) in spite of the resilience that the U.S. dollar has shown in 2012. Shares of the tobacco company have risen close to 17% since the first trading day in January, adding onto what amounts to a 3.3% dividend yield right now.

PM is the prototypical “sin stock,” and for dividend investors, that’s a very good thing; it means that the firm sports recession-resistant sales, brand loyalty and a strong dividend payout.

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Philip Morris International spun off from Altria (MO) back in 2008, separating the firm’s U.S. and international operations into distinct companies. PM, the international arm, is by itself the second-largest tobacco company in the world, selling popular brands like Marlboro, L&M, and Parliament to smokers around the world. In addition to mature markets in Western Europe, PM has been chasing high-growth in markets like India, Thailand and Eastern Europe.

Because Philip Morris International earns its revenue in foreign currencies, then converts it to dollars for reporting purposes, the firm is very susceptible to exchange-rate losses as an appreciating dollar cuts away at the firm’s earnings. So far, emerging market growth has managed to keep PM’s sales a step ahead of currency problems -- and keep the firm’s dividend climbing. The firm looks ready for a hike to its 77-cent payout.

I also featured Philip Morris recently in "5 Rocket Stocks You Should Buy."

Union Pacific

Union Pacific (UNP) weighs in as the largest railroad in North America, with more than 32,000 miles of track that links 23 states, Canada, and Mexico. While that does mean that UNP has some pretty substantial maintenance costs and capital needs to keep the wheels turning, it also gives the railroad a pretty substantial economic moat.

Prolonged high oil prices have been a big boon to UNP. In general, rail shipping costs around one-fourth as much as trucking does per ton shipped, a cost advantage that typically sends customers setting aside the convenience factor of truck freight once fuel prices get past a certain point.

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At the same time, UNP’s efficiency has been ramping higher. Today, the firm’s efficiency is as good as it’s ever been.

2011 was a record year for Union Pacific from a sales, income, and cash standpoint. That excellent financial performance gives the firm plenty of dry powder to hike its dividend in 2012. Right now, UNP pays out a 60-cent quarterly dividend, yielding 1.9% at current price levels.

Fifth Third Bancorp

If you’re an income investor looking for exposure to the financial sector, I’m a fan of Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB). It’s not just that shares have outperformed the S&P 500 by close to a third since I named the firm one of 4 Banks You Should Still Buy -- no, Fifth Third is a regional banking stock that’s got a big advantage over the massive national banks that most investors are focusing on right now.

One of them is fee income. Around 40% of FITB’s income came from stable, fee-based businesses in the last year, namely payment processing fees. That exposure to fees means that Fifth Third’s income statement isn’t as susceptible to the economic ebb and flow (or the Fed’s rate policy decisions) as most of its peers are. Of course, it’s still a bank, with more than 1,300 branches spread across the South and the Midwest.

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The firm took some knocks from its positioning back in 2008, but since then, FITB has shored up its loan book and gone back to solid financial performance. A history of running a tight ship bodes well as the firm brings in higher profits in 2012.

With FITB’s dividend currently sitting at 8 cents, a 2.3% yield, I think that this stock can afford to hike its dividend in 2012.

Fifth Third shows up on a recent list of 4 Large Bank Stock Picks From Deutsche Bank.

TD Ameritrade

Another financial stock that’s making our list is TD Ameritrade (AMTD), a brokerage firm that tips the scales as one of the world’s biggest. The firm is also one of the few holdovers from the online discount brokerage business of the late 1990s that’s managed to hold onto its successes and become a large, diversified financial services firm. One way AMTD has done that is by taking its earnings needs off of commission income and focusing instead on fee generation (like FITB) and interest.

Let’s face it: In general, investors don’t trust the stock market right now. And they’re unlikely to start trusting it anytime soon -- at least until we see a more meaningful rally in the S&P. When investors don’t trust stocks, they’re a lot less likely to generate commissions for their brokerage firm. But by generating other fees based on assets, as well as higher-spread margin loans to customers, TD Ameritrade is able to escape the market conditions that are otherwise hamstringing brokers right now.

Ultimately, TD Ameritrade may be the best in breed among brokerage firms, but it’s still the best in a less-than-stellar breed right now. While I do think that AMTD is likely to boost its dividend in the next quarter, investors looking for financial exposure (and a more meaningful yield) would do better to focus on Fifth Third Bancorp.

To see these dividend plays in action, check out the at Dividend Stocks for the Week portfolio on Stockpickr.

And if you haven't already done so, join Stockpickr today to create your own dividend portfolio.

-- Written by Jonas Elmerraji in Baltimore.

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At the time of publication, author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

Jonas Elmerraji, based out of Baltimore, is the editor and portfolio manager of the Rhino Stock Report, a free investment advisory that returned 15% in 2008. He is a contributor to numerous financial outlets, including Forbes and Investopedia, and has been featured in Investor's Business Daily, in Consumer's Digest and on MSNBC.com.