BALTIMORE (Stockpickr) -- Stocks are looking to end the week on a high note today, a welcome change given Wednesday's massive low note in the S&P 500.While most investors' attention has been fixated on capital gains this earnings season, dividends have been consistently flowing in. In the past five trading sessions, a total of 35 companies announced dividend hikes -- a significant chunk, particularly when investor anxiety is as high as it's been. Dividend increases have been a major theme this year; not only did companies surpass 2010's hikes early on in 2011, but they've also helped to ratchet the dividend yield of the S&P 500 to the highest levels it's seen since the 1990s. >>6 Companies Poised for Stunning Profit Growth That's a big deal -- after all, dividends aren't just window dressing. Historically, cash payouts to shareholders have a critical impact on the total returns those investors realize. How critical? 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 data compiled by Ned Davis Research. The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts. 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 seven of the stocks that hiked payouts in the last week.
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Archer Daniels Midland
Starwood Hotels & Resorts
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