Often, the firm’s ability to pay cash dividends is constrained by restrictive provisions in a loan agreement. Generally, these constraints prohibit the payment of cash dividends until the firm achieves a certain level of earnings, or they may limit dividends to a certain dollar amount or percentage of earnings. Constraints on dividends help to protect creditors from losses due to the firm’s insolvency.
The firm’s financial requirements are directly related to how much it expects to grow and what assets it will need to acquire. It must evaluate its profitability and risk to develop insight into its ability to raise capital externally. In addition, the firm must determine the cost and speed with which it can obtain financing. Generally, a large, mature firm has adequate access to new capital, whereas a rapidly growing firm may not have sufficient funds available to support its acceptable projects. A growth firm is likely to have to depend heavily on internal financing through retained earnings, so it is likely to pay out only a very small percentage of its earnings as dividends. A more established firm is in a better position to pay out a large proportion of its earnings, particularly if it has ready sources of financing.
The firm must establish a policy that has a favorable effect on the wealth of the majority of owners. One consideration is the tax status of a firm’s owners. If a firm has a large percentage of wealthy stockholders who have sizable incomes, it may decide to pay out a lower percentage of its earnings to allow the owners to delay the payment of taxes until they sell the stock. Because cash dividends are taxed at the same rate as capital gains (as a result of the 2003 and 2012 Tax Acts), this strategy benefits owners through the tax deferral rather than as a result of a lower tax rate. Lower-income shareholders, however, who need dividend income, will prefer a higher payout of earnings.
A second consideration is the owners’ investment opportunities. A firm should not retain funds for investment in projects yielding lower returns than the owners could obtain from external investments of equal risk. If it appears that the owners have better opportunities externally, the firm should pay out a higher percentage of its earnings. If the firm’s investment opportunities are at least as good as similar-risk external investments, a lower payout is justifiable.
A final consideration is the potential dilution of ownership. If a firm pays out a high percentage of earnings, new equity capital will have to be raised with common stock. The result of a new stock issue may be dilution of both control and earnings for the existing owners. By paying out a low percentage of its earnings, the firm can minimize the possibility of such dilution.
One of the more recent theories proposed to explain firms’ payout decisions is called the catering theory. According to the catering theory, investors’ demands for dividends fluctuate over time. For example, during an economic boom accompanied by a rising stock market, investors may be more attracted to stocks that offer prospects of large capital gains. When the economy is in recession and the stock market is falling, investors may prefer the security of a dividend. The catering theory suggests that firms are more likely to initiate dividend payments or to increase existing payouts when investors exhibit a strong preference for dividends. Firms cater to the preferences of investors.
A theory that says firms cater to the preferences of investors, initiating or increasing dividend payments during periods in which high-dividend stocks are particularly appealing to investors.
The firm’s dividend policy must be formulated with two objectives in mind: providing for sufficient financing and maximizing the wealth of the firm’s owners. Three different dividend policies are described in the following sections. A particular firm’s cash dividend policy may incorporate elements of each.
One type of dividend policy involves use of a constant payout ratio. The dividend payout ratioindicates the percentage of each dollar earned that the firm distributes to the owners in the form of cash. It is calculated by dividing the firm’s cash dividend per share by its earnings per share. With aconstant-payout-ratio dividend policy, the firm establishes that a certain percentage of earnings is paid to owners in each dividend period.
dividend payout ratio
Indicates the percentage of each dollar earned that a firm distributes to the owners in the form of cash. It is calculated by dividing the firm’s cash dividend per share by its earnings per share.
constant-payout-ratio dividend policy
A dividend policy based on the payment of a certain percentage of earnings to owners in each dividend period.
The problem with this policy is that if the firm’s earnings drop or if a loss occurs in a given period, the dividends may be low or even nonexistent. Because dividends are often considered an indicator of the firm’s future condition and status, the firm’s stock price may be adversely affected.
Peachtree Industries, a miner of potassium, has a policy of paying out 40% of earnings in cash dividends. In periods when a loss occurs, the firm’s policy is to pay no cash dividends. Data on Peachtree’s earnings, dividends, and average stock prices for the past 6 years follow.
Dividends increased in 2013 and in 2014 but decreased in the other years. In years of decreasing dividends, the firm’s stock price dropped; when dividends increased, the price of the stock increased. Peachtree’s sporadic dividend payments appear to make its owners uncertain about the returns they can expect.
The regular dividend policy is based on the payment of a fixed-dollar dividend in each period. Often, firms that use this policy increase the regular dividend once a sustainable increase in earnings has occurred. Under this policy, dividends are almost never decreased.
regular dividend policy
A dividend policy based on the payment of a fixed-dollar dividend in each period.
The dividend policy of Woodward Laboratories, a producer of a popular artificial sweetener, is to pay annual dividends of $1.00 per share until per-share earnings have exceeded $4.00 for 3 consecutive years. At that point, the annual dividend is raised to $1.50 per share, and a new earnings plateau is established. The firm does not anticipate decreasing its dividend unless its liquidity is in jeopardy. Data for Woodward’s earnings, dividends, and average stock prices for the past 12 years follow.
Whatever the level of earnings, Woodward Laboratories paid dividends of $1.00 per share through 2012. In 2013, the dividend increased to $1.50 per share because earnings in excess of $4.00 per share had been achieved for 3 years. In 2013, the firm also had to establish a new earnings plateau for further dividend increases. Woodward Laboratories’ average price per share exhibited a stable, increasing behavior in spite of a somewhat volatile pattern of earnings.
Often, a regular dividend policy is built around a target dividend-payout ratio. Under this policy, the firm attempts to pay out a certain percentage of earnings, but rather than let dividends fluctuate, it pays a stated dollar dividend and adjusts that dividend toward the target payout as proven earnings increases occur. For instance, Woodward Laboratories appears to have a target payout ratio of around 35 percent. The payout was about 35 percent ($1.00 ÷ $2.85) when the dividend policy was set in 2004, and when the dividend was raised to $1.50 in 2013, the payout ratio was about 33 percent ($1.50 ÷ $4.60).
target dividend-payout ratio
A dividend policy under which the firm attempts to pay out a certain percentage of earnings as a stated dollar dividend and adjusts that dividend toward a target payout as proven earnings increases occur.
Some firms establish a low-regular-and-extra dividend policy, paying a low regular dividend, supplemented by an additional (“extra”) dividend when earnings are higher than normal in a given period. By calling the additional dividend an extra dividend, the firm avoids setting expectations that the dividend increase will be permanent. This policy is especially common among companies that experience cyclical shifts in earnings.
low-regular-and-extra dividend policy
A dividend policy based on paying a low regular dividend, supplemented by an additional (“extra”) dividend when earnings are higher than normal in a given period.
An additional dividend optionally paid by the firm when earnings are higher than normal in a given period.
By establishing a low regular dividend that is paid each period, the firm gives investors the stable income necessary to build confidence in the firm, and the extra dividend permits them to share in the earnings from an especially good period. Firms using this policy must raise the level of the regular dividend once proven increases in earnings have been achieved. The extra dividend should not be a regular event; otherwise, it becomes meaningless. The use of a target dividend-payout ratio in establishing the regular dividend level is advisable.
Two common transactions that bear some resemblance to cash dividends are stock dividends and stock splits. Although the stock dividends and stock splits are closely related to each other, their economic effects are quite different than those of cash dividends or share repurchases.