BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- If 2011 taught investors anything, it's the importance of dividends.
While the S&P 500 has swung wildly from peak to trough this year -- set to close less than a percentage point away from breakeven -- dividends payouts have been the source of many shareholders' only meaningful returns in 2011. And the stage has been set all year for that to be the case: record cash in corporate coffers and multi-year high yields among payers both contributed to the effectiveness of a dividend strategy this year.
And looking longer-term, 2011 wasn't an outlier...
Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks have outperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to data compiled by Ned Davis Research. The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts.Related: 5 Big Surprise Stock Losers of 2011 That's why we pay close attention to the firms that are shoveling more corporate cash to shareholders each week. With that, here's a look at six of the stocks that hiked payouts in the last couple of weeks.