zPesk has a great answer about dividends generally, but to answer your question specifically about yield traps, here are a few things that I look for:
As with everything, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. A 17% yield is pretty out of this world, even for a REIT. And I wouldn't bet on it holding up. Compare a company's yield to that of others in the same industry (different industries have different "standards" for what is considered a high or low yield)
Dividends have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is cash flow. Look at the company's financial statements. Do they have sufficient cash flow to pay the dividend? Have there been any recent changes in their cash flow situation? How are earnings holding up? Debt levels? Cash on hand?
Sudden moves in stock price. A sudden drop in the stock price will cause the yield to rise. Sometimes this indicates a bargain, but if the drop is due to a real worry about the company's financial health (see #2) it's probably an indication that a dividend cut is coming.
What does their dividend history look like? Do they have a consistent track record of paying out good dividends for years and years? Companies with a track record of paying dividends consistently and/or increasing their dividend regularly are likely to continue to do so.
Great answers. Here's my two cents: First, don't forget to look at the overall picture, not just the dividend. Study the company's income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement for the last few years. Make sure they have good earnings potential, and are not carrying too much debt. I know it's dull, but it's better to miss an opportunity than to buy a turkey and watch the dividends and the share price tank. I went through this with BAC (Bank of America) a couple of years ago. They had a 38-year history of rising dividends when I bought them, and the yield was about 8%. Then the banking crisis happened and the dividend went from $2.56/share to $0.04, and the price fell from $40 to $5. (I stuck with it, continuing to buy at lower and lower prices, and eventually sold them all at $12 and managed to break even, but it was not a pleasant experience) Do your homework. :)
Still, one of the most reliable ways to judge a company's dividend-paying ability is to look at its dividend history. Once a company has started paying a dividend there is a strong expectation from shareholders that these payments will continue, and the company's management will try very hard to maintain them. (Though sometimes this doesn't work out, e.g. BAC)
You should see an uninterrupted stream of non-decreasing payments over a period of at least 5 years (this timeframe is just a rule of thumb). Well-established, profitable companies also tend to increase their dividends over time, which has the added benefit of pushing up their share price. So you're getting increasing dividends and capital gains.
Next, look at the company's payout ratio over time, and the actual cost of the dividend. Can the projected earnings cover the dividend cost without going above the payout ratio? If not, then the dividend is likely to get reduced.
In the case of CIM, the dividend history is short and erratic. The earnings are also all over the place, so it's hard to predict what will happen next year. The company is up to its eyeballs debt (current ratio is .2), and its earnings have dropped by 20% in the last quarter. They have lost money in two of the last three years, even though earning have jumped dramatically. This is a very young company, and in my opinion it is too early for them to be paying dividends. A very speculative stock, and you are more likely to make money from capital gains than dividends.
AAE is a different story. They are profitable, and have a long dividend history, although the dividend was cut in half recently. This may be a good to buy them hoping the dividend comes back once the economy recovers. However, they are trading at over 40 times earnings, which seems expensive, considering their low profit margins.
Before investing your money, invest in your education. :) Get some books on interpretation of financial staments, and learn how to read the numbers. It's sort of like looking at the codes in The Matrix, and seeing the blonde in the red dress (or whatever it was). Good luck!
Let me provide a general answer, that might be helpful to others, without addressing those specific stocks.
Dividends are simply corporate payouts made to the shareholders of the company. A company often decides to pay dividends because they have excess cash on hand and choose to return it to shareholders by quarterly payouts instead of stock buy backs or using the money to invest in new projects.
I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "dividend yield traps." If a company has declared an dividend for the upcoming quarter they will almost always pay. There are exceptions, like what happened with BP, but these exceptions are rare. Just because a company promises to pay a dividend in the approaching quarter does not mean that it will continue to pay a dividend in the future. If the company continues to pay a dividend in the future, it may be at a (significantly) different amount.
Some companies are structured where nearly all of there corporate profits flow through to shareholders via dividends. These companies may have "unusually" high dividends, but this is simply a result of the corporate structure. Let me provide a quick example:
Certain ETFs that track bonds pay a dividend as a way to pass through interest payments from the underlying bonds back to the shareholder of the ETF.
There is no company that will continue to pay their dividend at the present rate with 100% certainty. Even large companies like General Electric slashed its dividend during the most recent financial crisis. So, to evaluate whether a company will keep paying a dividend you should look at the following:
- the liklihood the company remains profitable
- whether or not the company believes that paying a dividend is the best use of their profits (admittedly hard to judge)
Update: In regards to one the first stock you mentioned, this sentence from the companies of Yahoo! finance explains the "unusually" dividend:
The company has elected to be treated as a REIT for federal income tax purposes and would not be subject to income tax, if it distributes at least 90% of its REIT taxable income to its share holders.