BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Ten companies announced dividend increases last week, a big jump from last week's numbers as firms capitalize on news-heavy earnings season to announce bigger shareholder payouts.

One of the biggest showings for last week's dividend hikes came from the energy sector. Energy stocks have seen share prices ebb and flow as commodities swung wildly in 2008 and 2009, and now that prices of major commodities have started to stabilize, many management teams are feeling good about doling out more cash to the investors who stuck it out with them.

That trend should also have new investors taking a look at these companies' shares; after all, a recent dividend increase sends a strong signal to Wall Street that a company's fundamentally sound. We pay special attention to each week's dividend hikes, and for good reason: Historically, companies that pay higher dividends materially outperform those that don't, and when the market turns bearish, dividends could be the only semblance of return that investors see for a while.

Dividend increases are significant for any company and an even bigger deal in this economy, where management has to decide whether to prioritize balance sheet liquidity or sharing profits with shareholders.

That's why every week, Stockpickr reviews recent dividend increases and compiles a portfolio of dividend-increasers. These stocks represent some of the most interesting income investments on the market right now.

Alliant Energy ( LNT) is one of the energy stocks that raised its dividends last week.

The public utility increased payouts to shareholders by 5.3% to a quarterly 39.5 cents per share. Alliant has gotten itself in trouble in the past with high-growth international ventures that proved to be unprofitable. But now, with those projects divested and a renewed focus toward the company's core competencies following 2009, Alliant looks poised to perform this year.

And the company is certainly hoping shareholders will take note. Alliant's main business is that of a regulated natural gas and electric utility operating in the Midwest. While growth continues to remain slow for most regulated utilities, their benefit comes from dependable revenue streams and an average dividend yield that's higher than most other industries. With a yield that currently weighs in at 4.56%, Alliant certainly appeals to income investors.

The stock also appeals to John Kohli, veteran fund manager of the Franklin Utilities Fund (FRUSX), a fund that holds Morningstar's coveted five-star rating. The fund holds sizable stakes in Exelon ( EXC) and PG&E ( PCG) in addition to its shares of Alliant.

CVS Caremark ( CVS) also made a showing on this week's dividend list of dividend increasers.

The pharmacy giant hiked payouts 14.8% to 8.75 cents per share, bringing the company's dividend yield to 1.04%.

CVS has been on investors' radar in the last year as the company staged a comeback, leveraging its recession-resistant pharmacy revenues to get attention from shareholders who were wary of high-risk stocks. The company has also been leading the competition -- opening in-store clinics, for instance -- and keeping its head above the water despite a tough economic environment that's hit the company's more-discretionary lines hard.
Who Owns CVS?

The Fidelity Advisor Dividend Growth Fund (FADAX) counts CVS as one of its biggest holdings, in addition to diversified stakes in Wells Fargo ( WFC) and Wal-Mart ( WMT).

Canadian communications giant Shaw Communications ( SJB) also hiked its payouts last week, increasing dividends 4.7% to 7.33 cents per share.

The company, which serves more than 3.4 million customers, provides television, Internet, telephone, and satellite services to businesses and consumers.

Efficiency is the name of the game at Shaw, which managed to grow its sales and operating income in 2008 and 2009 in spite of economic conditions that forced competitors to capitulate to consumer demands. As the economy improves, so too should Shaw's growth rate.

The T. Rowe Price Media and Telecom Fund (PRMTX) is one of Shaw's largest institutional holders, with 1.3 million shares in its coffers. The fund, rated five stars by Morningstar, also holds shares of AT&T ( T) and Apple ( AAPL) in its portfolio.

For the rest of this week's dividend stocks, check out the 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.

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

Jonas Elmerraji 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.

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