higher taxes on dividends? –implications for stock markets

the Obama proposal

President Obama has recently proposed that the current tax preference for corporate dividends paid to individuals be eliminated.  Instead of being taxed at most 15% of the amount received, dividends would be considered ordinary income and taxed by Washington at as high a rate as around 40%.

Personally, I’d prefer an overhaul–and simplification–of the current tax code instead of tweaks around the edges.  Rather than putting a foot into the  the quagmire of possible political motivations, however, let’s just take a look at what I think are likely results for US capital markets if it’s implemented.

what doesn’t change

1.  Tax-exempt and tax-deferred accounts would be unaffected.  For pension plans, 401ks and IRAs, and for non-profits, it will continue to make no difference whether they make money in the form of interest or dividend income, or of short-term or long-term capital gains.

2.  Aging Baby Boomers are developing an increasing preference for steady income over capital gains, which are sometimes there, sometimes not.  That won’t change either.

what does

3.  I think the biggest effect will be on company decisions to start making dividend payments or to increase a payout they already have.

It seems to me that most publicly traded corporations recognize the Baby Boom-induced change in investor preferences now happening in the US.  Understanding that a substantial, and rising, dividend is a positive for their stock, companies have been happy to return profits to shareholders this way.  They do this despite realizing that if you combine federal and state/local income levies, up to 25% of the payout will go to the taxman.

If dividends lose their tax preference, the percentage taken by the taxes will approach 50%.  That means a big drop in what the shareholder will retain, both numerically (a third) and psychologically.  For most companies, I suspect, it will tip the balance in favor of devoting free cash flow to share buybacks rather than dividend increases.

For my money, that takes a lot of the shine away from what I consider to be the most attractive part of the dividend-stock universe–companies with above-average dividends today and for which you can reasonably project a quickly rising free cash flow over the next few years.

4.  If the government continues to  keep interest rates at emergency lows and, by accident or design, it also removes much of the incentive for individuals to buy dividend-paying stocks, how do investors adjust?  Maybe there’s a boost in demand for junk bonds, although income-oriented investors have been buying riskier forms of fixed income for a long time.

I think biggest effect would be for investors to broaden their horizons further.  The 7%-8% yields on EU telecom stocks will suddenly look more attractive, despite currency risks.  So, too, emerging market securities, both bonds and dividend-paying stocks.

5.  Looking at #3 another way,  provided they’re large enough to lower the share count, stock buybacks raise earnings per share.  All other things being equal, that should mean a higher per share stock price.  If so, the higher share price would likely offset some or all of the negative effect of dividends increasing at a slower rate.  In other words, the mix of returns (price appreciation + dividend income) changes, and in a way that increases risk.  But the crucial investment question is whether the total return from both sources will be higher or lower than before.

No one knows the answer.  But if the total return is lower–that is, if the effect of higher taxes on dividends is to decrease the long-term value of US equities–then one would expect US investors of all stripes to look increasingly to stock markets outside the US.  In addition, on the margin, US companies might also begin to look to foreign venues to raise new capital, if they could achieve higher prices for their stock by doing so.

My bottom line:  this proposal is one to watch closely.  Like a snowball that starts rolling down a hill, its consequences could be far greater than just to raise taxes on older, upper middle class city dwellers.

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