Stock Quotes in this Article: COST, INTC, UNH, WMT, XOM

 BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- These five companies are primed to pay out more dividends next quarter -- they just don’t know it yet.

As the first earnings season of 2012 slows down, it’s time to take a look ahead to what’s in store for next earnings season, which “officially” starts in just a couple of weeks. After all, fundamental investors don’t get rewarded for buying companies that had good performance in the past -- the goal is to buy stocks that are going to impress Wall Street in the future. And right now, one of the most impressive feats a company can pull off is a dividend hike.

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Investors have taken on a renewed interest in the last couple of years, after being unceremoniously reminded in 2007 and 2008 that those quarterly checks contribute a whole heck of a lot of Mr. Market’s historical returns. According to research from Wharton Professor Jeremy Siegel, reinvested dividends account for 97% of total market performance. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that finding dividend increasers is a big priority.

Today, we’ll look into the crystal ball to try and find firms likely to hike their payouts in the quarter ahead.

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 2012 rally.

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

Exxon Mobil

Oil and gas behemoth Exxon Mobil (XOM) has been trailing the broad market in the last several months, doling out returns of just 16.5% in the last six months, vs. the S&P 500’s near-21% climb over that same period. That lagging performance adds some extra impetus for Exxon’s management team to add some shareholder value in the coming quarter. That could mean a hike from XOM’s 47-cent dividend up to half a buck.

Exxon is the world’s largest integrated oil and gas supermajor, with daily production of 2.4 million barrels of oil and 12.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas. That massive scale gives Exxon some advantages when it comes to cutting costs, even if a supersized footprint doesn’t really help the E&P business. XOM has proven adept at generating deep margins for its operations, and triple-digit crude prices don’t hurt. As consumers consider substituting natural gas for their energy needs, XOM’s hefty exposure to gas should help the firm handle a shift in demand better than most.

Dividends are nothing new for Exxon. In the last five years, Exxon has paid out more than $40 billion in dividends, more than the market value of many of the firm’s smaller E&P competitors. With a stellar balance sheet and ample cash generation at current crude prices, a dividend hike could well come with the firm’s April 26 earnings call.

The firm’s current dividend yield comes in at 2.18%.

I also hired Exxon, one of 9 Gold, Oil Stocks That Rise on Bad News, in "5 Big Stocks to Trade for Gains."

Wal-Mart

From one giant, and onto another. Wal-Mart (WMT) weighs in as the world’s biggest retailer, selling more than $400 billion worth of stuff each year through close to 10,000 worldwide store locations. Retail is a business where scale certainly does matter, and Wal-Mart has it in spades. The firm is well known for being a brutal negotiator with suppliers -- Wal-Mart's stocking a product can make or break a manufacturer, and both parties know it. That pricing power gives Wal-Mart an enviable economic moat, especially in this convalescing economy.

There is a downside to that size, though: growth. Finding material sales growth is extremely challenging at this stage – it’s more than a matter of just opening more stores. Most of the regions where Wal-Mart wants to be are already saturated with its stores, and the firm’s international segment has yet to mature into the business WMT has stateside. The online retail space is one area where the firm can actually grab a bigger share (and with it, bigger margins). Both of those areas are going to take time to make a difference on the income statement.

But in the near-term there’s still a lot of room for upside in Wal-Mart’s dividend. No shock, WMT throws off mountains of free cash from its operations, and with a payout ratio that rings in at only 24%, there’s still a lot of room for increased dividends. Watch out for a potential hike from .3975 cents per share to come with the May 17 earnings call.

Wal-Mart, one of 10 Companies in the Ultimate Stock Picker's Portfolio, is also one of 10 Top Warren Buffett Dividend Stocks.

Intel

Intel (INTC) is an anomaly in the dividend world. The firm was a growth stock poster child back in the late 1990s, save for the fact that it was actually able to turn a profit. Now, though, Intel is the new poster child for the dividend stock world; with a near 3% dividend yield, the firm is one of the highest-yielding names in the tech sector. And evidence points to even bigger payouts for Intel’s shareholders in 2012.

As the world’s biggest chipmaker, Intel has some big advantages. The firm is able to capture attractive contracts with OEMs who use its chips, offer co-branded advertising opportunities to customers, and it’s able to pour cash into its R&D unit. Those factors give Intel a head-and-shoulders advantage over rivals right now, even if the firm is trailing in the mobile device space.

As the gap between mobile devices and computers closes, Intel should be able to more easily transition its way down the device ladder -- and keep its market-leading position in the semiconductor business.

Owning 80% of the microprocessor industry has some serious financial advantages – one of those is a balance sheet that’s got a positive net cash position and ample liquidity to fund R&D, acquisitions, and -- of course -- dividends. Intel’s payout ratio sits at 31.7%, a level that’s still conservative enough to fuel a rate hike in the coming quarter. A double-digit increase is a real possibility for the firm’s April 17 earnings call.

Intel shows up on a list of 4 Chip Stocks Smart Money Is Buying.

UnitedHealth Group

$61 billion health insurer UnitedHealth Group (UNH) is having a good year in 2012 -- shares have rallied almost 15% so far this year, vs. 11.5% from the S&P. While the broad market’s performance is nothing to scoff at, UNH has managed to do one better. And with earnings slated for April 19, the firm could be set to add onto that year-to-date performance with a dividend increase.

UNH provides health insurance and plan management to more than 78 million Americans. That big customer list endows UNH with some pretty nice benefits: It gives the firm a lot of leverage over medical providers, which in turn drives cost-conscious patients to turn to UNH’s services. Oh, and did I mention that it helps drive margins to support the firm’s dividend payout?

While the ongoing national healthcare debate adds some murkiness to UNH’s regulatory challenges in 2012, by and large the firm’s bottom line shouldn’t be majorly impacted either way. Currently, UNH yields 1.12%. While that hardly qualifies the firm as a core income holding, it’s worth noting that this stock is a high-yield name for investors who bought shares just a couple of years ago.

UnitedHealth, one of Omega Advisors' holdings, shows up on a list of 3 Health Care Buys for 2012.

Costco Wholesale

With around 430 wholesale stores spread across the globe, Costco Wholesale (COST) weighs in as the ninth-largest retail name worldwide. While rival Sam’s Club (owned by Wal-Mart) has more stores, Costco makes more money. The firm’s bread and butter is big-ticket items, a niche that Sam’s hasn’t been able to break into successfully. As a result, COST’s sales per square foot come in at nearly twice as much as its biggest competitor.

Costco has a membership model, which means that only the firm’s 64 million members can shop in its stores. That membership restriction provides Costco with a recurring revenue stream, and (more significantly), a very loyal and sticky customer base. Because consumers are less likely to carry memberships from competing wholesale clubs, Costco’s existing base of higher-spending customers gives the firm a shallow economic moat versus its peers.

While retail is typified by thin margins and high balance sheet leverage, Costco actually boasts a stellar balance sheet with limited debt and a deep net cash position. That financial staying power should help the firm support bigger dividend payouts in 2012 -- Costco’s payout ratio of 26% leaves ample room to pay a bigger chunk of profits out to shareholders. The firm’s third-quarter earnings call on May 24 could come with a decent dividend hike.

Costco is one of Renaissance Technologies' holdings and also shows up in Warren Buffett's portfolio as of the most recently reported quarter.

To see these dividend plays in action, check out the Potential Dividend Hikes 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.