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Profit Margins Surge to 18-Year High

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Record earnings fueled by the highest profit margins since 1993 are giving executives more leeway than ever to boost dividends as the bull market enters its third year.

Bloomberg reports margins will climb to 8.9% in 2011, the highest level in at least 18 years, according to data compiled on non-financial companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index through March 11. Greater profitability combined with dividend cuts during the credit crisis have pushed earnings to 6.53% of the gauge’s price, or 3.5 times more than its payout rate, close to the record 3.6 multiple in January.

According to the news service, a total of 95 companies led by Aetna Inc. and Carnival Corp. have raised dividends as the fastest economic expansion in six years and five straight quarters of earnings growth increased confidence among chief executive officers. Of the 380 that pay dividends, 378 are forecast to maintain or increase them, according to data compiled by Bloomberg using options prices, profits, management statements and peer comparisons.

“The economy seems to be doing well and earnings are on the recovery path, which companies wanted to be sure about before they raised their dividends,” John Carey, a Boston- based money manager at Pioneer Investments, which oversees about $250 billion told Bloomberg. “I feel relatively confident that most of the dividends out there are secure, and we’ll see some fairly broad based increases.”