Stock Quotes in this Article: ALTR, EL, MUR, SE, UNM

 BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Sure enough, earnings season is sending dividend hikes trickling in.

Companies have been boosting dividends en masse for the last few year, driving payouts higher as corporate earnings and holdings of cash grew to all-time highs. The result is the biggest cash dividend payout ever from S&P 500 stocks than ever right now and an average dividend yield that’s higher than it’s been any time in the last 20 years. So clearly, now’s not a bad time to be an income investor.

But the downpour of dividend hikes is slowing a bit this quarter. Only a handful of firms opted to increase their dividend payouts last week, vs. nearly a hundred that opted to merely maintain it. That’s a much bigger difference than investors have been used to lately -- but it doesn’t mean that you can’t find attractive dividend hikers in this market.

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That’s why it’s time to take a look ahead at dividend hikes on the horizon,

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.

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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.

Estee Lauder

Cosmetics and fragrance manufacturer Estee Lauder (EL) is a household name that owns a handful of other well-known beauty brands: EL owns popular names like Clinique in addition to mall staples M-A-C and Origins. That’s enough makeup power to give EL a 25% share of the world’s high-end cosmetics market, a segment that’s managed to hold up surprisingly well in spite of the global slowdown in consumer discretionary spending.

Even though 60 cents of every dollar EL generates comes from overseas, the firm still has plenty of room to expand its reach abroad, particularly in emerging markets where a burgeoning population of middle class women is eager to trade up their makeup. Revenues have already eclipsed pre-recession highs, and the firm has built up enough cash on its balance sheet to neutralize its debt load.

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That financial success has helped Estee Lauder to increase its annual dividend in each of the last two years. At present, the firm’s payout is a split-adjusted 52 cents per share, a number that I see increasing in 2012. Concentrated ownership from the Lauder family should help put an impetus on a bigger shareholder payout.

Spectra Energy

Natural gas firm Spectra Energy (SE) is involved in every step of the nat gas process, from pulling it out of the ground to transporting it over its 19,000 mile pipeline network to even distributing it to retail customers. The firm currently pays out a 28 cent quarterly dividend, a payout that puts Spectra’s yield at a hefty 3.83%. But that dividend could be heading higher this year.

In short, Spectra is one of the most diversified nat gas pure plays on the market today, a distinction that hasn’t exactly been positive in the past couple of years as natural gas prices skidded along lows. But nat gas consumption has been climbing steadily over that period as users looked for lower-priced alternatives to crude oil. That trend bodes well for Spectra and its peers.

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Financially, Spectra is in good shape. While debt is high, massive cash flow generation more than covers the firm’s obligations. And on the income statement side, top and bottom line numbers continue to grow quickly as Spectra’s scale increases while the firm maintains huge net margins.

While Spectra has already announced another 28 cent dividend payable in September, I think it’s likely we’ll still see a bigger payout later in 2012.

Spectra shows up on a recent list of 8 Stocsk Benefiting From North America's Energy Boom.

Altera

Another firm that looks ready for a dividend hike is chipmaker Altera (ALTR). While Altera isn’t a core dividend stock by any stretch -- its 8 cent quarterly payout equates to a 1.03% yield at current share price levels -- a hike would be a good signal that Altera’s fundamental performance doesn’t warrant the selloff in shares this year. So far in 2012, shares of Altera have slid more than 16%.

Altera is a leader in the programmable logic device market, a subset of chips that can have its circuitry -- and functions -- reprogrammed by the manufacturer’s clients and are purchased by original equipment manufacturers of everything from communications devices to automobile components. The firm makes up half of the PLD duopoly that currently dominates the market.

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The sheer number of new mobile devices hitting the marketplace is one of the most compelling growth catalysts for Altera right now. At the same time, high switching costs for device makers should guarantee that the firm is able to capture a material chunk of new device contracts as they come available.

With plenty of excess cash generation, Altera is in solid shape to hike its payouts in the next quarter.

Murphy Oil

Oil exploration and production firm Murphy Oil (MUR) has been shaking up its business model in the last year or so, moving from being an integrated oil producer to strictly an E&P firm. That’s meant shedding gas stations and unloading refineries, moves that will reduce Murphy’s scale temporarily, but should drastically boost MUR’s net margins and make the firm less beholden to the ebb and flow of oil prices.

That’s a good thing for income investors; it means that the firm’s 27.5 cent dividend payout is less likely to get cut if oil prices recede too far and squeeze low margin refining and retail operations.

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$10 billion Murphy is one of the more interesting E&P names on the market. Its projects span from the Congo to Malaysia to the U.S., and they’ve fuelled a double-digit growth rates for Murphy’s top line in the last several years.

That growth (and the cash it’s provided) has helped to easily cover the firm’s dividend for the past few years. Murphy’s payout has been 27.5 cents, now a 2.24% yield, since August 2010. I think that the firm is due for a dividend hike in the next quarter.

Unum

Last up today is Unum (UNM), a $5.4 billion disability insurer that operates in the U.S. and the U.K. Unum also offers customers a handful of other insurance products -- like life insurance and long-term care insurance -- but they represent a much smaller portion of the firm’s loan book.

Ironically, Unum was one of the few insurers that hit rough waters ahead of the financial crisis only to survive the global meltdown in good shape. In the last decade, Unum suffered from underpricing its policies (the result of hefty exposure to a niche insurance product), and poor attempts at wriggling out of expenses. But in the years since, it’s fixed pricing problems and maintained a conservative portfolio that avoided the pitfalls that other insurers fell into.

The firm’s cash generation should warrant a dividend hike this year. Currently, Unum pays out a 10.5 cent dividend each quarter, providing a 2.22% yield for investors. It’s maintained that payout for the last four quarters; earnings on Aug. 2 could provide a venue for a hike.

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