Some dividends have staying power. Companies delivering enduring dividends tend to back such often-rising payouts with robust business and financial achievement.

Fragile dividends, meanwhile, arise because of weaker operational and financial characteristics. Those are the dividends to avoid. However, fragile dividends often seem tempting, because of high yields.

How to tell the difference

Under the spotlight today, two FTSE 100 firms: Lloyds Banking Group (LSE: LLOY) and mining company Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO) .

These firms operate in different sectors, but they both have a high dividend yield. At the recent share price of 65p, Lloyds’ forward yield for 2016 is around 5.7%. At 1717p, Rio Tinto’s is just under 9%.

Let’s run some tests to gauge business and financial quality, and score performance in each test out of a maximum five.

1. Dividend record

Both firms have paid at least some dividends:

Ordinary dividend 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Lloyds Banking Group (pence) 0 0 0 0.75 2.39(e)
Rio Tinto (cents) 145 167 192 215 226(e)

(e) = estimated

Lloyds didn’t pay a dividend for several years, but payments are back on stream now. Meanwhile, I estimate Rio Tinto’s dividend will have advanced around 56% over the four-year period shown.  

For their dividend records, I’m scoring Lloyds 1/5 and Rio Tinto 5/5.

2. Dividend cover

Lloyds expects its 2016 adjusted earnings to cover its dividend around two times. Rio Tinto expects earnings to cover the payout just under once.

My ‘ideal’ dividend payer would cover its cash distribution with earnings at least twice.

However, cash pays dividends, so it’s worth digging deeper into how well, or poorly, both companies cover their dividend payouts with free cash flow. 

On dividend cover from earnings, though, I’m awarding Lloyds 4/5 and Rio Tinto 1/5.

3. Cash flow

Dividend cover from earnings means little if cash flow doesn’t support profits. Here are the two firms’ recent records on operational cash flow compared to profits:

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Lloyds Banking Group          
Operating profit (£m) 369 (3,542) (606) 415 1,762
Net cash from operations (£m) (2,037) 19,893 3049 (15,531) 10,353
Rio Tinto          
Operating profit ($m) 19,608 13,940 (1,925) 7,430 11,346
Net cash from operations ($m) 18,277 20,030 9,430 15,078 14,286

Volatile cash flow such as Lloyds’ seems common with banking firms. Their arcane accounting practices can make the measure less useful for investors than it might be for companies in other sectors. However, periods of negative cash flow from operations are always undesirable in my book, whatever the company.

When cash flow persistently fails to support profits, companies must make up the shortfall from other financial activities, such as investing or fund raising. Such reliance on activities other than straight-forward banking is a big part of what makes banks such as Lloyds so cyclical and prone to harsh volatility that often exaggerates macro-economic wobbles and financial market undulations.

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto displays robust positive cash flow that supports its profits.

I’m playing it safe and scoring Lloyds just 1/5 for its record on cash flow from operations. Rio Tinto gets 5/5.

4. Debt

Interest payments on borrowed money compete with dividend payments for incoming cash flow. That’s one reason I think big debts are undesirable in dividend-led investments.

Most banks carry big external debts and Lloyds’ borrowings run around 15 times the level of its 2014 operating profit, although earnings rebounded during 2015. However, bank debts come in many forms, so that’s not Lloyds’ only exposure to other people’s money. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto’s borrowings sit at around seven times its current operating profit.

Arguably, banking businesses require, and can justify, high debt-loads. However, I reckon they would make more secure investments with lower levels of borrowed money. Indeed, the need for high exposure to debt in order to turn a profit seems to be one of the main reasons banks tend to get in trouble when economies tank.

 I’m giving both Lloyds and Rio Tinto a cautious 0/5 for their approach to borrowings.

5. Degree of cyclicality

Recent weakness in the share prices of the London-listed banks and miners, teaches me not to become complacent about the cyclicality inherent in their businesses.  

Cyclical firms make poor choices for a dividend-led investing strategy, I would say, and Lloyds and Rio Tinto both operate with hair-trigger cyclical characteristics.

I’m scoring both Lloyds and Rio Tinto 1/5 for their cyclicality.

Putting it all together

Here are the final scores for these firms:

  Lloyds  Rio Tinto
Dividend record 1 5
Dividend cover 4 1
Cash flow 1 5
Debt 0 0
Degree of cyclicality 1 1
Total score out of 25 7 12

Rio Tinto wins this face-off, but these are two low-scoring firms. Cyclical firms such as Lloyds and Rio Tinto are two steer-clear shares for my long-term dividend strategy, so my search for a dividend champion continues.

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Kevin Godbold has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Rio Tinto. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.