US firms rush dividends to avoid ‘fiscal cliff’

AFP Photo / Jim Warson
Shareholders of many American companies will get a big Christmas gift as firms move dividend payments early ahead of January, 1. Next year top tax rate on dividends could almost triple from 15% to nearly 45%.

An array of companies, from Las Vegas Sands Casino to Wal-Mart, will issue special dividends next month or move dividend payouts earlier in order to get ahead of January, 1, when the top tax rate on dividends is set to more than double. More than 100 US giants, Costco and Las Vegas Sands among them, have moved their regular quarterly dividends from early 2013 to December, Markit reports. That’s compared with the average of 31. Markit predicts at least 20 more will be soon announced.

Retailer Costco said it would pay a special dividend totaling roughly $3 billion, $7 a share, on December 18, in the largest payout so far from any company ahead of the likely tax increase.

The maker of Jack Daniels whiskey Brown-Forman Corp., declared a special dividend of $4 a share, to be paid on December, 27. Department store owner Dillard's set a $5 a share bonus dividend.

The tax on dividends and capital gains is expected to increase sharply next year after the Congress negotiations on cutting the deficit over the long term.

Cut to 15% in 2003 from a top rate of 39.6%, the dividend tax has become a symbol of the economy that critics say favors the wealthy. George W. Bush-era tax cuts are now due to expire. Most experts expect the rate to be pushed back up to as much as 35%, or more if the highest income tax rate is raised again.

Democrats and Republicans could still hammer out the tax reform, but companies appear not to be taking risk.

The biggest beneficiaries at many of these companies will reportedly be the families and managers who run them.

Markit report shows that out of 74 companies examined an average of 30% of the shares were owned by insiders. The Walton family owns about half the stock at Wal-Mart, which has moved its dividends payment to December. Similarly, roughly half the stock at casino operator Las Vegas Sands is owned by chief executive Sheldon Adelson and his wife, according to the data provider. The company said it will pay $2.75 a share, a total of $2.26 billion, next month.