(Dividend stocks article updated with Disney-Netflix agreement and broker action on Regal Entertainment.)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Walt Disney ( DIS), Deere ( DE) and Eastman Chemical ( EMN) joined a roster of companies raising their shareholder payouts in recent weeks.

Dividend activity has picked up in recent months as companies begin to regain some sense of stability in the state of the economy, and visibility of future earnings growth. The iShares Dow Jones Select Dividend ( DVY), an exchange-traded fund that tracks the Dow Jones U.S. Select Dividend Index, is up nearly 12% so far in 2010, and up nearly 13% year-over-year.

With record cash in corporate coffers, investors have been egging on corporate management teams to return value to shareholders in the form of dividend checks -- and a growing number of companies are listening.

Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks 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 a study from National Data Research.

There are several advantages to investing in dividend stocks for market watchers with long-term investment plans.

Most simply, dividend stocks allow investors to make money with capital gains and with the dividend payments themselves, explains Dividend.com, a financial services website that notes "dividend stocks are not a get-rich-quick scheme" for day traders but are key to growing capital over longer periods of time, usually for several years.

Capital gains are booked as a stock's value rises. Dividend payments are awarded to shareholders, usually on a quarterly basis.

Here then is a breakdown of 10 dividend stocks increasing their shareholder payouts in recent weeks, ranked by average volume.

(Stock quotes are based on closing prices on Dec. 3, 2010.)

Walt Disney

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Walt Disney ( DIS)

Company Profile: Walt Disney is a Burbank, Calif.-based entertainment company with operations in four business segments: Media Networks, Parks and Resorts, Studio Entertainment, and Consumer Products.

Disney, the entertainment company best known for Mickey Mouse, said late Wednesday its board approved a 14.3% increase to its annual dividend.

In a press release issued after the closing bell, the Dow component said its annual payout would rise 5 cents to 40 cents a share from a prior level of 35 cents.

The higher dividend is payable on Jan. 18, 2011 to shareholders of record on Dec. 13. At the current share price, the forward annual yield on the higher dividend payout would be 1.1%.

"The Walt Disney Company had a strong year both creatively and financially in 2010," said Robert Iger, the company's president and CEO. "We are pleased to be able to raise our shareholder dividend while continuing to invest for future growth."

Year-to-date, the stock has risen nearly 17% compared with a gain of just over 9% for the Dow Jones industrial average. The shares reached their 52-week high of $38 in November, boosted by its fiscal fourth-quarter report on Nov. 11.

Fiscal fourth-quarter profit declined 6.7% to $835 million and earnings per share fell 8.5% to 43 cents. Sales narrowed 1.3%. Still, the gross and operating margin remained steadfast at 20% and 16%.

On Dec. 8 Disney announced a deal inked with Netflix ( NFLX) allowing Netflix subscribers to access hundreds of episodes from ABC, Disney Channel and ABC Family 15 days after the shows air. As part of the deal, Netflix will add old episodes of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Brothers & Sisters and Desperate Housewives. It will also make available episodes of series no longer on the air like Lost and Ugly Betty. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

>>Netflix to Stream ABC Shows


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Deere ( DE)

Company Profile: Moline, Ill.-based Deere operates through four business segments: agricultural equipment, commercial and consumer equipment, construction and forestry, and credit. It provides products and services for agriculture, forestry, construction, landscaping & irrigation.

The earth-moving equipment maker raised its quarterly dividend by 16.7% to 35 cents per share. The higher payout will be available Feb. 1, 2011 to stockholders of record on Dec. 31.

That brings Deere's yield to 1.8%.

Deere management said on its Nov. 24 earnings call that it intended to reward investors with a series of moderate dividend increases, targeting an average 25% to 35% payout ratio.

Deere has been increasing dividends every year since 2004, thanks to its cash position and healthy cash flow. This week's increase marks the second in 2010.

In late November, Deere reported net fiscal-fourth quarter profits of $457.2, or $1.07 per share, compared with a year-earlier loss, on stronger sales in the U.S. and Canada. Results topped expectations.

For the full year, the company's net income more than doubled to $1.87 billion.


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Ecolab ( ECL)

Company Profile: St. Paul, Minn.-based Ecolab develops and markets premium products and services for the hospitality, foodservice, healthcare and industrial markets. It provides cleaning and sanitizing products and programs, pest elimination, maintenance and repair services.

Ecolab upped its quarterly cash dividend by 13% to 17.5 cents per share. It will be paid next on Jan. 18, 2011 to shareholders of record at the close of business on Dec. 21.

That brings Ecolab's current yield to 1.5%.

The increase marked Ecolab's nineteenth consecutive annual dividend rate increase. Ecolab has paid cash dividends on its common stock for 74 consecutive years.

On Wednesday, Ecolab said it completed the acquisition of the Cleantec business, a chemical and cleaning solutions operation, from Australia's Campbell Brothers. Financial details were not disclosed.

On Friday Ecolab shares were downgraded by analysts at Citigroup from a rating of buy to hold.

Technical indicators for the stock are bullish and ratings agency Standard & Poors gives ECL a positive 4 stars (out of 5) buy ranking.

Regal Entertainment

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Regal Entertainment ( RGC)

Company Profile: Knoxville, Tenn.-based Regal Entertainment operates the most geographically diverse theater circuit in the United States, consisting of 6,768 screens in 548 theaters in 39 states and the District of Columbia as of December 31, 2009.

Regal Entertainment declared an extraordinary cash dividend of $1.40 per Class A and Class B common share, payable on Dec. 30 to stockholders of record on Dec. 20.

Its board also said its quarterly dividend will increase by 16.7% to 21 cents per share, to be declared in the first quarter of 2011. The change will affect its previously announced dividend of 18 cents per Class A and Class B common shares, payable Dec. 17 to holders of record on Dec. 8.

The higher payout will bring Regal's annualized yield to 5.6%.

"Regal is pleased to announce the extraordinary dividend of $1.40 per share of Class A and Class B common stock," said CEO Amy Miles. "In addition, our intention to increase our regular quarterly dividend to 21 cents per share illustrates our belief in the Company's ability to generate significant free cash flow and our commitment to providing value to our stockholders."

Fitch Ratings said Friday that Regal's latest dividend announcements do not affect the company's ratings.

Merriman Curhan Ford analyst Eric Woldissued a downgrade on Regal Entertainment shares to neutral from buy, citing risks to the firm's fourth-quarter results and lingering box office weakness.

"Although we remain optimistic about Regal's industry-leading screen network, accelerating 3D expansion and improving free cash flow trends into the 2011 box office rebound, we believe the shares may pause during an expected weak 4Q/1Q box office period," the analyst noted. "We are downgrading RGC to Neutral from Buy and recommend investors stay on the sidelines until visibility improves into the timing of a box office rebound next year (or when valuation better reflects any near-term risk)."

Eastman Chemical

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Eastman Chemical ( EMN)

Company Profile: Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical is a global chemical company that manufactures and sells a portfolio of chemicals, plastics and fibers. Eastman has 11 manufacturing sites in seven countries that supply chemicals, plastics, and fibers products to customers.

Eastman Chemical increased its quarterly cash dividend by 6.8% to 47 cents per share. The dividend is payable Jan. 3, 2011, to stockholders of record as of Dec.13.

That will bring Eastman's yield to 2.3%.

In early November Eastman announced the public offering of $250 million of 3% notes due 2015, and $250 million of 4.5% notes due 2021. Closing of the offering of notes is expected to occur on Dec. 10, 2010.

Eastman intends to use the net proceeds from the sale of the notes to pay for securities purchased in Eastman's previously announced tender offer for up to $500 million of various series of its outstanding debt securities. Any remaining proceeds will be used for general corporate purposes.

Gildan Activewear

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Gildan Activewear ( GIL)

Company Profile: Montreal, Quebec-based Gildan Activewear is a marketer and vertically-integrated globally manufacturer of basic, non-fashion apparel products for customers requiring an efficient supply chain and consistent product quality for high-volume replenishment programs.

Gildan initiated a quarterly cash dividend payment of 7.5 cents per share, to be paid on March 18, 2011, to shareholders of record on Feb. 23. The initial payout will put Gildan's annualized yield around 1%.

The company has a lucrative business manufacturing private-label clothing for major big-box brands like Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT) -- a sales channel that competitors like Under Armor ( UA) would kill for.

Gildan has enjoyed top-line growth of more than 15% for the trailing five years. The rub with this company sits with its internal structure: the company owns capital-intense manufacturing plants and deals with fluctuations in commodity input costs. The firm is countering those black clouds by shoring up its financials during the good times, paying down around 90% of its outstanding debt last year.

While economic headwinds and stiff competition have threatened Gildan's ability to perform financially, the company has seen its revenues and net income expand at a steady clip over the years. With a short interest ratio of 10.9 as of November, Gildan presents investors with moderate short-squeeze potential.

>>5 Apparel Stock Short-Squeeze Plays

A short squeeze is the buying frenzy that ensues when a heavily shorted stock starts to look attractive again to investors, causing short-sellers to cover their positions -- and share price to skyrocket.

FBR Capital analysts maintained an underperform rating on Gildan shares following its fourth-quarter earnings beat, with a price target of $26.

OGE Energy

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OGE Energy ( OGE)

Company Profile: Oklahoma City-based OGE Energy is an energy and energy services provider offering physical delivery and related services for both electricity and natural gas in the south central United States.

OGE increased its dividend by 3.4% to 37.5 cents per share. The next dividend will be paid on Jan. 28, 2011 to holders of record on Jan. 10.

That brings OGE's annualized yield to 3.3%.

On Thursday OGE announced that it tapped chief operating officer Danny P. Harris to be the president of OGE Energy and its utility subsidiary, Oklahoma Gas and Electric. Harris remains COO of OGE Energy and OG&E, positions he has held since October 2007. He also remains President of Enogex, OGE Energy's midstream natural gas pipeline subsidiary. Peter B. Delaney, president of OGE Energy and OG&E since January 2007 and chairman and CEO since September 2007, remains chairman and CEO, as well as CEO of Enogex.

This buy-rated electricity and natural gas provider for the south central U.S. ranks as the third best all-around value stock according to TheStreet Ratings stock model. Forward earnings are expected to increase to $3.10 per share in the coming year from $2.95 in the trailing 12 months. Revenue popped by 38% last quarter as net income advanced by 10% over the year earlier quarter.

>> 5 Best All-Around Value Stocks to Buy

Alexandria Real Estate Equities

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Alexandria Real Estate Equities ( ARE)

Company Profile: Pasadena, Calif.-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities is a real estate investment trust focused on science-driven cluster formation through the ownership, operation, management & selective redevelopment, development & acquisition of properties containing office/laboratory space.

Alexandria Real Estate said this week it raised its quarterly cash dividend by 10 cents, or 28.6%, to 45 cents per share.

The dividend is payable on Jan. 17, 2011 to shareholders of record on Dec. 31. That brings Alexandria's yield to 2.6%.

>> REIT Earnings: Behind the Numbers

In November, Alexandria Real Estate said it expects 2010 funds from operations to be $3.57, with earnings per share coming expected at $2.29. Funds from operations, or FFO, is a performance figure generally used by REITs to define cash flow from operations.

The FFO guidance was in line with analysts' expectations.

Mid-America Apartment Communities

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Mid-America Apartment Communities ( MAA)

Company Profile: Memphis-based Mid-America Apartment Communities is a self-administrated and self-managed real estate investment trust which owns, acquires and operates multifamily apartment communities mainly in the Sunbelt region of the United States.

Mid-America said Wednesday its board voted to increase its quarterly dividend by 2% to 62.75 cents per share. The next payday will be on Jan. 31, 2011 to shareholders of record on Jan. 14.

The increased dividend brings Mid-America's annualized yield to 4%.

"We are encouraged with the improvement in leasing trends and expect the operating environment will continue to show steady improvement," said CFO Al Campbell. "MAA is one of the few multifamily REITs that did not reduce or suspend their cash dividend over the last couple of years of weak economic and capital market conditions. MAA is well positioned for the emerging recovery cycle and we look forward to continued progress for our shareholders."

>> 14 REITs Increasing Dividends Annually

In early November, Mi-America increased its fiscal 2010 FFO guidance by 6 cents per share to $3.56 at the midpoint. For the current quarter it now expects FFO in a range between 86 cents and $1 per share.

Mid-America also said it expects to maintain same-store occupancy levels in the 95% to 96% range, and believes pricing trends will continue to show improvement through the remainder of fiscal 2010 and into fiscal 2011, assuming the economy continues to stabilize and the employment markets begin to recover.

Analysts' consensus call is for fiscal 2010 FFO of $3.60.

>>Mid-America Rises on Acquisition


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Enbridge ( ENB)

Company Profile: Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge's main business activities are the transportation and distribution of crude oil and natural gas.

Enbridge hiked its dividend by 15.3% to 49 cents per share, payable in Canadian funds, less Canadian taxes.

It will be paid on March 1, 2011 to holders of record on Feb. 15.

That will bring Enbridge's yield to more than 3%.

Enbridge also said that for fiscal 2011 it expects adjusted operating earnings to be in a range between $2.75 and $2.95 per share. Analysts' consensus call is for full-year EPS of $2.88.

In November, Enbridge announced it entered into a strategic alliance with Canadian-based, clean power generation company Genalta Power under which Enbridge will purchase significant equity position in Genalta.

"Investing in promising alternative energy technologies is one of the ways Enbridge is contributing to a greener energy future. Through our Pathfinders program, we're supporting the innovation offered by companies like Genalta, and helping to advance the development and commercial viability of clean energy technology that complements conventional energy production," Szmurlo said.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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