Questionable Yield

The White House wants dividends to be tax-free. But will companies pay out?

Eliminating the double tax on corporate dividends — the centerpiece of George W. Bush’s latest tax plan — is by no means a new idea in Washington, having been kicked around in one form or another at least since Jimmy Carter’s Administration. This time, though, the idea has a fighting chance of becoming reality. Despite President Bush’s initially clumsy promotion of the dividend tax cut as a short-term economic stimulus, the basic issue of not taxing profits twice plays well with some centrist Democrats as well as Republicans. The question is whether a deficit-wary Congress is willing to gamble on another huge ($364 billion) tax cut when an expensive war with Iraq looms.

For CFOs of companies that don’t issue dividends, the main question is whether a dividend tax cut will change their minds. Certainly, given the current pessimism on Wall Street, a regular payout can make a stock more attractive. There’s also the cachet of financial integrity that a dividend confers on a stock (though both WorldCom and Enron paid dividends). During the bull market, no self-respecting technology firm would have dreamed of issuing a dividend, but today, some tech outfits are having second thoughts.

In January, Microsoft announced an 8 cent dividend, a yield of 0.34 percent. That’s tiny compared with the S&P 500′s 1.75 percent, and a token gesture for a company with $43.4 billion in cash. Still, the announcement represents a remarkable change in attitude. In February, wireless-communications provider Qualcomm Inc. became the latest tech payer of dividends. A dividend tax cut would no doubt persuade other tech firms to follow suit.

Nonetheless, there are several reasons why a sudden wholesale shift to dividends is unlikely. First among them is the long-held view that dividend-paying stocks attract a distinct class of investors who seek stable returns — the sort of returns provided by mature, slow-growth businesses. The dividends issued by companies in younger, more-volatile sectors will have greater yield volatility, and some companies may even pay one-time dividends. Would such variation in payout attract the usual dividend-seekers?

Slow and Steady Wins

Jim Judge, CFO of Boston-based utility Nstar, doesn’t think so, although he’s strongly in favor of Bush’s plan. “Dividend-sensitive investors like predictability,” he says. He should know. Nstar is the holding company for electric utility Boston Edison; together, they have paid dividends for 455 consecutive quarters — almost 114 years. Even the rate of dividend growth (roughly 3 percent a year) is deliberately held steady. When Nstar sold six fossil-fueled power plants and its nuclear power plant in the late 1990s, the company did not increase the dividend, but instead returned a portion of the one-time gain to shareholders through share buybacks.

By contrast, CFOs of companies that don’t pay dividends say their investors would view a payout with suspicion. “Part of the subtext to [issuing a] dividend is the acknowledgement that growth opportunities aren’t as robust as they were before,” explains Harlan Plumley, CFO of Lightbridge Inc., a microcap telecommunications software and services firm in Burlington, Massachusetts, that doesn’t pay dividends. Plumley says the Bush proposal might diminish the dividend stigma enough to provide an alternative, if secondary, source of capital for high-growth companies. “But it is still not going to be an easy decision for small- to midcap companies,” he adds.

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