Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dividend policy

Let's put some links together on the broad subject -- one of great relevance to all the themes of this blog -- of corporate dividend policy. How do companies decide how much cash their stockholders get on a regular basis?

Here's a pdf from Deutsche Bank on the theory and practice.

And here are a few words from scholars at UPenn.

One piece of the puzzle is the fact that individuals in the US are generally taxed more for dividends than for the capital gain on the sale of stock. The dividends are "ordinary income." So, shouldn't a rational investor want the company to keep reinvesting its cash, building up that strike price, and earning him that capital gain? Why does anyone even want a dividend?

On the other hand, a stock that doesn't pay dividends has a Madoff-like air to it. I'm holding on to it so I can sell it at a higher price to someone else, you say? Well, why would he want it? Because he expects to sell it to a yet greater fool further down the road? Somewhere, somebody has to receive a stream of income/cash in order to anchor those capital gains. That, at any rate is one common sensical take on the issue.

At any rate, once a company has a history, a track record as to the quantity of dividends it pays, there is a good deal of pressure to keep it up. The dividend level is "sticky." Why? Because any departure can be taken as a signal. A cut in dividends can be considered proof the company is in trouble and desperately needs to hold onto its cash. An increase in dividends can also be taken as a signal that the company is in trouble, specifically that it is making a desperate move to perfume that fact!

Consider that Lehman Brothers, the broker-dealer that famously declared bankruptcy in September 2008 and set off that autumnal crisis, had increased its own dividends by 13% earlier in the year. You may as well give that some consideration -- if you are the member of a board of directors that institutes such a cut, signalling theorists will consider it for you!

Finally, if you are an investor, you might want to consider a dividend reinvestment plan. Especially because it goes by such a neat acronym. Such a plan is known as a DRIP.

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