Don't believe the hype about special dividends

December 6, 2012: 11:28 AM ET

Most companies aren't rushing to beat the fiscal cliff with special payouts -- they regularly pay these dividends.

fiscal cliffFORTUNE -- In the run-up to the fiscal cliff, special dividends are being called Corporate America's answer to higher taxes. Companies are rushing, analysts say, to reward shareholders with billions in special payouts before individuals' dividend tax rates are raised in 2013. Costco (COST) just announced a massive special dividend, as did Wynn Resorts and DISH Network (DISH). Some strategists even suggest buying the dividend-paying stocks to cash in on the trend.

But when you stop to scrutinize the numbers, there's hardly a new trend developing—and almost no way to profit from it.

Researchers at Birinyi Associates determined that of the S&P 500 companies—the biggest and most well-known businesses in America—just fifteen have announced special dividends since Oct. 1, a period when executives began noticing the looming "fiscal cliff." Of those 15 companies, only four had not paid a special dividend within the previous three years. In other words, the fiscal cliff isn't compelling them into action.

"If companies hadn't done this before, they're not rushing to return cash this way," says Birinyi analyst Kevin Pleines.

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This may come as a surprise to some who heard GOP-contributor and casino mogul Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts (WYNN) rail against higher tax rates as his company approved a special dividend in October. But the non-trend is apparent in the numbers. The $13 billion in special dividends announced in 2012 ranks as just the fourth-largest amount since 1992. It trails the years 2010 (when $14 billion were announced), 2007 ($23 billion) and 2003 ($33 billion).

Again, look to Wynn Resorts. When the Las Vegas casino-company approved its $7.50 a share special dividend, Wynn took to a conference call to say that when taxes are high, businesses "don't distribute, the shareholders don't get the dividends and Uncle Sam doesn't get the tax on dividends." But Wynn Resorts has been paying a special dividend for six of the past seven years. Two years ago the year-end payout hit $8 a share, hardly the sign of a company now rushing to beat Uncle Sam's tax hikes.

Even if companies were rushing to distribute billions that they otherwise wouldn't, that's not reason for the average investor to get excited.

Birinyi says going back to 1992, if you had bought a stock before its ex-dividend date (the last day to still receive the dividend payment) and held it for the next six months, you earned an average return of 3.5%. Unfortunately, that only beats the S&P 500 index 46% of the time.

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Now approach it the opposite way. If you had bought the stock the day after you were eligible to receive its special dividend, thus foregoing payment, and held onto it for six months, you earned an average return of 3.8% -- almost the same exact return as if you had pocketed the dividend. The head-scratching figures reflect the market's capacity to take in information millisecond by millisecond.

"Just as with any regular dividend, the stock price will automatically adjust lower by the exact amount of the dividend at the market open on the ex-dividend date, leaving no net gain," Morningstar's Josh Peters writes in a recent note on special dividends.

Wall Street will surely pitch this "tidal wave" of payouts as a reason to buy stocks. But remember that a rush of year-end dividends is not new, and even if it was, that wouldn't be a reason to buy.

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About This Author
Scott Cendrowski
Scott Cendrowski
Writer, Fortune

Scott Cendrowski is a writer at Fortune based in Beijing, where he covers business in China. He moved there in late 2013 from New York, where he wrote about Wall Street and investing. Before joining the magazine in 2008, he was a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic and an intern for Bloomberg News. A Detroit native, he has a B.A. in public policy from Michigan State University.

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