NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The S&P 500 may be up a quick 5% in the early weeks of 2012, but it's important that investors not forget about dividends. As interest rates remain at historic lows and financial uncertainty looms across the globe, it is prudent to maintain exposure to income-generating stocks -- especially while the tax laws remain favorable in this country.And believe me, dividends can grow as well. In 2011 alone, Standard and Poor's recorded $50.2 billion of dividend increases in the U.S., with actual cash payments increasing 16% year-over-year. With solid underlying earnings and solid balance sheets, dividends will likely continue to grow in the new year. With that in mind, what do I Iook for in an attractive dividend stock? Two things: security and potential growth. Both are equally important and I consider both necessary before buying a dividend stock.
Looking at Pfizer's earnings -- the fuel for the dividend payout -- the company is expected to earn $2.30 a share in 2012; which is enough to cover the dividend payment 2.6 times. Pfizer debt consistently receives A-ratings from the major agencies and I believe that the stock can generate a double-digit total return (including the dividend) this year.Up next is Duke Energy ( DUK), which is currently changing hands around $21.32, giving the North Carolina-based utility a 4.7% yield. That said, the stock has lagged the market year-to-date, falling 3%. In fact, the utility sector as a whole is currently the most oversold area in the market these days. But in this weakness, I find opportunity. Duke can consistently deliver above-average growth in a sector where growth is rare. This will be helped in part from a recent $400 million rate increase granted to the company by state regulators. As a result, I expect Duke will be able to increase its dividend once again this summer, and believe the stock offers an attractive risk/reward profile. Readers Also Like: >> 10 Top Dividend Stocks to Own Until Retirement >> 5 'Dividend Opportunity' Stocks for 2012