Summary - A special dividend is a cash payment made by a company to its shareholders that is separate from any regular dividend the company may issue. Special dividends are typically the result of an earnings period in which a company received a windfall profit. Special dividends are also usually larger than a company’s regular dividend.
Unless an investor is a shareholder of a company, special dividends can fly under the radar. That’s because they are not subject to the same protocol regarding dividend announcements as with a regular dividend or final dividend. A noteworthy exception to that was in 2004 when Microsoft announced a special dividend of $3 per share, which totaled $32 billion.
Because the value of the special dividend can have a significant impact on a company’s share price, the way the ex-dividend date is calculated is different and is established by the rules of the particular exchange the stock is traded on. Special dividends are also subtracted from a company’s regular dividends when calculating their dividend per share value.
Although special dividends do share some things in common with regular dividends, there are important distinctions in regard to the ex-dividend date and taxation that make them. Unlike regular dividend stocks, chasing special dividends is not seen as a profitable option for long-term investors. While the opportunity to capture a yield that can be significantly higher than a regular dividend is appealing, the share price will almost always fall at least the amount of the per share price of the dividend if not more on the day after the ex-dividend date, thus eliminating any potential gain.
Many investors enjoy the benefits of dividend stocks. These regular payments can be a valuable and reliable source of cash for income investors and also an opportunity for growth-oriented investors to increase the number of shares they own by re-investing their dividends for more of a company’s common stock. Sometimes, however, a company issues a dividend outside of their normal schedule. These are called special dividends.
A special dividend is best thought of as a "bonus" payment. When a company issues a special dividend it does not mean they intend to skip their regular dividend. Nor does it imply anything about the amount or the percentage increase of the regular dividend. Special dividends are usually triggered by one-time events that provide a company with excess cash on their balance sheet. When a company has a high free cash flow, they can choose to reinvest in their business or return the cash to its shareholders. This can be done in the form of a dividend or through share buybacks. However, while regular dividends or stock buybacks are usually carefully planned and announced to investors well in advance of the event, special dividends can happen with very little advance notice and the amounts are not known ahead of time. For fundamental analysis purposes, a special dividend is subtracted from a company’s annual dividends when calculating their dividend per share (DVS).
In addition to expanding on the special dividend definition we provided, this article will explain why companies may choose to issue special dividends and review their tax ramifications as well as the effects special dividends have on a company's share price. Finally, we'll explain why some analysts can look at a special dividend as a bad signal for investors.
What is a special dividend?
A special dividend is a cash payment made by a company to its shareholders that is separate from any regular dividend the company is currently paying. Special dividends are typically the result of an earnings period in which a company received a windfall profit. Special dividends are also usually larger than a company’s regular dividend
Why do companies pay special dividends?
As stated above, the most common reason that a company will issue a special dividend is due to exceptional earnings that have left them with excess cash. But there are other reasons a company may issue a special dividend. For example, they may have sold off a large asset while going through a corporate restructuring. An example of this occurred in 2017 when a utility sector stock, National Grid (NGG) issued a special dividend of $17.2 billion after it sold 61 percent of its United Kingdom gas distribution business. Another reason a company may pay a special dividend is due to non-recurring capital gains. This type of capital gain can occur when a company has an equity stake in a company it lends to. That is the case of Main Street Capital (MAIN). The business development company has been issuing a special dividend of $0.55 cents per share every year since 2013. Although the company believes it will be able to continue to deliver this special dividend for the foreseeable future, it is not considered a regular dividend. One reason for this is so that the company’s payout ratio does not rise to a level that could make investors and shareholders question the sustainability of the regular dividend.
A company’s payout ratio highlights another reason for companies to issue special dividends – when they are part of a hybrid payout plan. In a hybrid payout plan, a company will issue a defined quarterly dividend and issue a special dividend on an annual basis that will bring their dividend payout ratio to the percentage of earnings per share (EPS) that they desire. An example of this is Ford Motor Company (F) that has a policy of issuing a regular dividend of 15 cents per share and a special dividend that will give them a payout ratio of 40% to 50% of EPS. Companies whose earnings can be cyclical may choose the flexibility of this dividend strategy as a way to reward long-term shareholders while still being able to have the cash on hand to address the needs of their capital intensive business.
Yet another reason a company may pay a special dividend is to take advantage of favorable tax policy. In 2012, a record number of companies issued special dividends due to the uncertainty of whether the tax cuts issued by the Bush administration would expire. This would have raised the tax rate for qualified dividends from 15% to being taxed as regular income.
The tax ramifications of special dividends
Special dividends are most commonly treated as a return of capital. For shareholders, having this classification means the income they receive is not taxed as regular income (like it would be for regular dividends). Instead, the cost basis for the shares they receive is lower and the shareholders will only be taxed when the shares are sold. However, if the money is held in a tax-deferred account, such as a 401(k) or IRA, the shareholder will miss out on the tax benefit since distributions from the plan after age 59 1/2 are taxed as regular income. Still, a special dividend like a regular dividend does undergo double taxation (the company is taxed as well as the shareholder).
However, there is a particular kind of special dividend arrangement in Australia known as a franked dividend that eliminates the double taxation of dividends. In this case, a shareholder can reduce the taxable amount they will pay. This is because any dividends are paid out of a company’s profits that have been taxed. This “franking credit” is assessed at a company’s tax rate. Since that tax rate is generally higher than the shareholder’s tax rate, the investor can profit from the difference between the two rates. A fully franked dividend is one in which the company pays tax on the entire dividend thus allowing investors to receive 100% of the tax paid as franking credits.
What effect do special dividends have on a company’s stock price?
By choosing to issue a special dividend, a company is electing to use their excess cash to pay shareholders, which will reduce the value of the company. So even though a special dividend is generally seen as a sign of financial health, it can have a negative impact on a company’s stock.
Like a regular dividend, there is an ex-dividend date that applies to special dividends. However, since the amount of a special dividend can be a significant percentage of a company's stock price, it could lead to market disruption by having a company's share price fall to the point where stop-loss orders or margin calls are triggered. For this reason, the ex-dividend date is adjusted by the particular stock exchange the company is trading on using a "due bill" document.
The impact of a special dividend on a company’s stock price is that the company’s stock will fall by approximately the same amount of the special dividend on the day after its ex-dividend date. For this reason, it’s typically not a sound investment strategy to buy shares of a company in order to capture the extra dividend.
Why special dividends can be a bad idea
Many shareholders enjoy getting paid with the cash from a special dividend. However, this does not mean that special dividends are a good idea for the company issuing them. In the first place, analysts may question a company’s motives for issuing the special dividend and begin to wonder if the business has lost its ability to grow. If the business can’t find any other uses for the cash, has it peaked? Another reason that many experts don’t think special dividends are a good idea is that they add no long term value to a stock. A regular dividend is issued as part of a company’s capital structure. They are predictable and if they grow it is usually a sign that a company’s earnings and free cash flow are also growing. Over time a quality dividend stock has a stable payout ratio and dividend yield. Special dividends can decrease a company's future cash flow and as a result, limit the opportunity for future dividend growth.
The bottom line on special dividends
Special dividends are one option that a company has to return excess cash to its shareholders. The typical reason for a company to issue a special dividend is because they have had a record earnings season which has put excess cash on their balance sheet. The special dividend is a one-time gift that they give to shareholders. However, there can be other reasons that companies offer special dividends – particularly if they are involved in a cyclical industry. Although these dividends may be paid on a regular schedule, they are not considered to be regular dividends and are not factored into a company’s recorded dividend per share (DPS) number.
One key difference between a regular dividend and a special dividend regards the ex-dividend date. Because special dividends may require a large payment to shareholders that can equal a significant percentage of a company’s share price, the ex-dividend date is modified to help ensure there is no disruption in trading. However, like a regular dividend, the company’s share price will typically decline the day after the ex-dividend date.
Special dividends also enjoy different tax treatment since they are usually classified as a return of income. This allows shareholders to avoid the shares being taxed until they are sold whereas with a regular dividend the money received is taxed as regular income even if the shares are reinvested.
When considering investing in a company that issues special dividends, investors should avoid chasing the dividend. Instead, they should apply the same due diligence that they would and invest in the stock if they see the long-term prospects for the company to be sound. In many cases, a special dividend is a sign that a company is on solid financial footing, but it can also be a caution that the company has no more opportunity for growth since it can’t find any other use for the extra cash.