Fiscal Cliff Spurs Record Special Dividend Payouts

Matthew Zeitlin tallys up just who won in 233 special dividends.

‘Twas the season for giving—to others and, in some cases, yourself. Self-gifting for normal retail goods like iPads was a muted trend in the just-concluded holiday season. But self-gifting of cash was downright rampant in corporate boardrooms across America.

Since President Obama’s reelection and the certainty of a knock-down fight over the Bush tax cuts, it became clear to corporate boards and the big stockholders that elect them that the low, low, low 15 percent rate on qualified stock dividends was likely to rise come 2013. The endgame for the dividend rates—and everything else for that matter—remains unclear even with a few hours left until all the Bush tax cuts, and temporary ones put in place by the Obama administration, expire at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. But it was (and is) quite possible that dividends could go back to being taxed as ordinary income at pre-Bush levels. That means rich folks would pay tax rates as high as 39.6 percent on dividends. Regardless, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) will impose a dividend surtax of 3.8 percent on the highest earners.

And so some of America’s biggest recipients—CEOs and board members—took evasive action. The period between the election and the end of year saw an orgy or “special dividends,” one-off payouts from companies to their shareholders. According to financial data firm Markit, the fourth quarter saw 233 special dividends. That’s 7.5 times more such dividends than is typical for the final three months of the year. (An average fourth quarter has about 31 special dividend announcements.) This year’s special dividend count was three times higher than in the end of 2010, which saw 74 special dividends paid out in advance of the Bush tax cuts’ original scheduled expiration. (They were extended another two years, so the special-dividend payers were acting in haste.) All told, the special dividend payouts totaled some $30.9 billion.

The average shareholder get a chunk of this payout. But it was the insiders who really benefited from the generosity of their corporate boards. Markit’s figures show that a large portion of the dividend payouts went to large shareholders who also have a hand in running the company making the payouts. These insiders got $8.8 billion of the $30.9 billion paid out in total. Half of the special dividends were paid out by relatively small companies, valued at under $1 billion, which are more likely to be controlled by a small clique of shareholders that are also managers. Of the 233 companies that announced special dividends, 101 were more than one-fifth-owned by insiders.

The company with the highest level of insider control that paid out a special divided this quarter was Village Super Market, which operates 29 ShopRites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The company was founded by two brothers, Nicholas and Perry Sumas, in 1937, and today, six of its 12 directors are Sumases. According to Markit, Village Super Market had the largest share of insider ownership of any company that paid out a special dividend in the fourth quarter—some 93.07 percent.

Insiders at big companies wrote themselves huge checks, too. One of the biggest dividend payouts was made by Las Vegas Sands, the gambling giant, whose chief Sheldon Adelson controls more than 50 percent of the company. The company announced a $2.75-a-share dividend for a total of $2.26 billion paid to shareholders, netting Adelson and his wife $1.2 billion.

Adelson was not the only conservative billionaire who wrote himself a big check in advance of Obama allowing taxes on investors to rise—fellow Vegas anti-Obama titan Steve Wynn’s Wynn Resorts announced a $8-a-share special dividend in November, which cost $750 billion.

The irony is that The Washington Post reported this afternoon that the most recent negotiations between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden came around to 20 percent dividend and capital gains rates for individuals with $400,000 in taxable incomes and couples with $450,000. And while even that would still affect Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, it’s hardly a confiscatory crisis.

Of course, when there are tens of millions of dollars of taxes to be avoided, it is better to be safe than sorry. The Washington Post Company, which owns The Washington Post, announced in December that it would pay all its anticipated 2013 dividends by the end of 2012.