CNBC Stock Blog

Cash In on the Special Dividend Craze

Dana Blankenhorn, Contributor
Paul Sakuma

Adam Smith was wrong.

In his classic "The Wealth of Nations," available free from Penn State, Smith predicted that capitalism's winners would reach a point of satiation, and that rather than continue to hoard their wealth they would spread it around, bending capitalism toward the general welfare.

Smith never met Bill Frist of the Hospital Corporation of America-controlling Frist family. Or Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson. Or Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Or dozens of other extremely rich people who, appalled that taxes on dividends, currently at the 15 percent capital gains rate, would rise in January to the rates on ordinary income, as high as 39.6 percent, with a special 3.8-percent tax on investment income on top to pay for health reform, are cashing out early, as our Jonathan Heller reported Tuesday.

The folks at iStockAnalyst say total special dividends are up 400 percent this year, thanks to scheduled changes in the tax law.

If Frist and Adelson and Ellison had been really clever they might have had the good sense of George Steinbrenner, who died in 2010, when the estate tax was at zero, before it was reimposed, as The Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

You can still get in on this action. While many special dividends have already been paid, or their record dates passed, I've compiled a small collection of deals from press releases, ordered by record date:

  • Las Vegas Sands, $2.75 per share to shareholders of record December 6.
  • Sturm Ruger, $4.50 per share to shareholders of record December 7.
  • Heartland Express, $1 per share to shareholders of record December 7.
  • Costco, $7 per share to shareholders of record December 10.
  • Lancaster Colony, $5 per share to shareholders of record December 10.
  • Brown Forman, $4 per share to shareholders of record December 12.
  • Electro-Scientific Industries, $2 per share to shareholders of record December 13.
  • Cato, $1 per share to shareholders of record December 14.
  • Dish Network, $1 per share to shareholders of record December 14.
  • Pet-Med Express, $1 per share to shareholders of record December 14.

This is just what I found poking through news releases on Google for a few hours. Maybe you can find others. Please leave them in the comments, and thank you.

This doesn't count companies like Oracle and Wal-Mart who are paying next year's dividends this month in order to avoid the tax bite. These are just companies pushing out special dividends, dividends on top of their regular pay-outs, in order to keep money in insiders' pockets and away from Uncle Barack.

And some of these deals are truly extraordinary — Costco and Hospital Corporation of America are both borrowing money to make these payouts, HCA for the second time this year. (They expect to put another $2 per share in stockholders' pockets, mainly private equity folks and the founding Frist family, before December 31, but haven't announced a record date yet.)

I find this funny. The "fiscal cliff" talks are still going on, and I really don't expect that, in the end, taxes on dividends are suddenly going to triple. If you're like me and keep your stocks in an IRA, or you're not a multimillionaire, this is just a windfall, a little stimulus for your yuletide stocking.

In macro-economic terms, we're moving income expected for 2013 into 2012, meaning that more wealth is being created, and more taxes paid, this month than in many, many years. It's a tribute to dysfunctional government.

Next year will take care of itself. There is no evidence that people suddenly stop working, or fire people, or divest themselves of all they possess because marginal tax rates go up. If they did there would be a lot more Buddhas sitting under trees, in the Caymans and elsewhere.

Those who quit the game are, I guess, announcing their satiation, which is what Adam Smith was counting on. There will be other, younger opportunists ready to take their place. There is nothing so special about Larry Ellison or Sheldon Adelson that someone else wouldn't be glad to step into their shoes, even if they have to pay more in taxes, and take that income, and build new businesses.

To that extent, what's going on is a very profitable temper tantrum, a disgorgement of cash that's been cluttering corporate balance sheets for years.

I guess what I'm saying is hooray for the "fiscal cliff" and all those who are jumping off it. You're making me money, and I thank you for it.

As for the rest of you ordinary investors, get in there and buy something. They're throwing money at you. Take it.

By Contributor Dana Blankenhorn

Additional News: Dividends — Who's Cashing In?

Additional Views: Don't Chase Special Dividends

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At the time of publication, Dana Blankenhorn was long Costco shares.