special dividends and (in)efficient markets

As I’ve already blogged about, many US companies are paying large special dividends to shareholders before December 31st. Either that or they’ve accelerated payouts planned for 2013, distributing them this year instead.  The idea is to avoid the presumably much higher taxes the IRS will be levying on dividends next year.  Some companies, like COST, appear even to be borrowing money to fund distributions.

The after-tax value of a dividend payment in 2012 to a taxable shareholder is likely greater than one made in 2013.  In addition, it may be possible to manufacture a tax loss from the transaction as well–something that would add another bit of extra value.  So it’s not surprising that stocks paying special dividends should be strong performers in advance of the day they start trading ex dividend.

I’ve been noticing another feature they seem to have, however, that I hadn’t anticipated.  The stocks appear to be “carrying” a large part–and in one case I’m aware of, all–the special dividend.  Here’s what I mean:

If a company’s stock is trading at $100 a share the day before it goes ex a $10/share dividend, then in a flat market you’d expect the stock to drop to $90 when ex trading commences the next day.  But the current crop of special dividend stocks aren’t acting true to form.  They’re trading at $93 or $95 or higher instead.

What could be causing this behavior?

I haven’t seen any cases where important news breaks on the day the stock goes ex.  The only thing that I can see is that a buyer is no longer entitled to the special dividend.

I have only one explanation, and a semi-crazy one at that.  I’ve concluded that buyers don’t know that the stock has paid out a large dividend.  Buyers think instead that the stock has just made a large downward random fluctuation that makes it an attractive purchase.

I have two thoughts:

–what I’ve just described could never happen in an efficient market, which tells you something about how much attention Wall Street is currently paying to stocks; and

–I wish I’d thought of this possibility before companies started paying special dividends, rather than when they’re finishing up.

Intel (INTC)’s $6 billion bond offering

INTC has just filed a prospectus with the SEC for a proposed $6 billion bond offering.  The securities it intends to sell are as follows:

Title of Each Class of
Securities To Be Registered
Amount To Be
Registered
Proposed Maximum
Offering Price
Per Unit
Proposed Maximum
Aggregate
Offering Price
1.350% Notes due 2017 $3,000,000,000 99.894% $2,996,820,000
2.700% Notes due 2022 $1,500,000,000 99.573% $1,493,595,000
4.000% Notes due 2032 $750,000,000 99.115% $743,362,500
4.250% Notes due 2042 $750,000,000 99.747% $748,102,500

Several aspects of this offering are interesting:

1.  INTC says it will use the proceeds for general corporate purposes (this is the boilerplate answer to the use question) and to buy back stock.

The dividend yield on INTC shares at a price of $20 each is 4.5%.  Total interest expense for the offering, ignoring accretion of discount, will likely be $142.875 million, meaning INTC is paying a blended interest rate of 2.38% for the money it will receive.

Unlike dividends, interest payments are a deductible expense for income tax.  After tax, the interest rate is 1.55%.  So for every share of stock INTC buys it will pay out $.31 in annual interest but save $.90 in dividend payments.  So the issue makes INTC’s cash flow go up. A $1 billion buyback at current stock prices would add about $30 million to annual cash flow.

2.  Why an offering now?

A short while ago, INTC boosted its quarterly per share payout to $.225, even though the company knew its new product spending would remain very high through this year.  Companies typically don’t raise the dividend based on future earnings potential;  they do so based on the idea that they have plenty of extra cash, come what may.  In other words, INTC thought it had lots of money to spare.

What’s changed?

–for one thing, the stock price is a lot lower than I would have expected, and the dividend yield is very high.  The chance to buy INTC assets for less than management thinks they’re worth + being paid through dividend savings to do so, the opportunity may have been too good to pass up.  I think this is the main reason for the fundraising.

–INTC’s operations generated over $5 billion in cash during a (relatively weak) 3Q12 alone.  The company also has about $11 billion in cash and short-term investments on the balance sheet.  So why borrow?   …presumably because the bulk of that money is located outside the US.

3.  My initial reaction on seeing the announcement was that problems had developed with planned cash flow in the US.  I don’t think that’s correct, though.  The US has been weak for a while.  It’s emerging markets that have been surprisingly bad for INTC recently.  And those profits presumably remain overseas.

In other words, I don’t think the offering comes as a result of adverse internal cash flow developments.

4.  INTC may be figuring that current low rates won’t last very long.  To me it’s striking that the company is raising 20-year and 30-year money.  Why else do that today?

my conclusion:  I’ve written about confirmation bias recently, partly with INTC in mind.  If I’m suffering from it, INTC’s board is, too.  In any event, the company’s indicated intention to buy back a significant amount of its shares appears to be what’s behind the stock’s current strength.  My guess is that this strength will continue for a while more.

 

Return on equity (III): a tax-efficient split up

double taxation of dividends
In the US, and most often, elsewhere, dividend payments to shareholders must be made from income on which domestic taxes have already been paid. Recipients pay income tax again on any dividend income they receive.
(In contrast, the IRS regards interest payments on bonds as an expense. So these payments are made from pre-tax income, and serve to lower the firm’s tax bill. No wonder some companies leverage themselves too much.)
For a mature, low growth, business that throws off cash and doesn’t have many good ways to reinvest the money, stock buy backs and dividend payments are the two common methods of returning these funds to shareholders. Personally, I think stock buy backs are almost always a scam. At the very least, they’re not a very dependable source of funds for income oriented investors. And double taxation means that a sizable chunk of the money available for distribution–just over a third, in the US–is lost to the taxman.
There has to be a better way!
For many firms, there is. It’s called a Real Estate Investment Trust ( REIT), and it’s becoming an increasingly popular corporate solution to the mature business problem.
Briefly, a REIT is a special form of corporation, somewhat akin to a mutual fund. It accepts restrictions on the kinds of activity it can take part in, and agrees to distribute virtually all the income it generates to shareholders. In return, it is exempt from corporate income tax.
Details on Monday.