President Barack Obama is seeking input from Corporate America on the so-called fiscal cliff. But whatever company honchos may be saying about the risk of recession in 2013 if tax hikes and spending cuts kick in on January 1, it looks as if they actually fear higher taxes more than a downturn.
Exhibit A is the recent flurry of special dividends, including a $3-billion whopper announced on Wednesday by warehouse retailer Costco. Data group Markit says 112 firms so far this quarter have already pulled the trigger on special dividends. They include casino operator Las Vegas Sands, which will send more than $1 billion to Mitt Romney’s pal Sheldon Adelson, his wife and the trusts the billionaire controls. Markit expects 20 more firms to do something similar before the year is through.
It’s notable that many of the companies announcing special payments have big family-owned stakes. These early distributions will save shareholders money if tax rates on dividend income do go up next year, from the current 15 percent.
But paying out cash isn’t a rational response if the fiscal cliff is a recipe for a downturn. In that case, companies ought to be hoarding it. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has long said US output would fall. That has given corporate chiefs like Mark Bertolini of Aetna and Dave Cote of Honeywell a bandwagon from which to implore Washington to do something to avert a metaphorical plunge into the abyss. If the real fear is not so much the health of their companies as that of any dividend recipients’ pocketbooks, it’s a less compelling line.
In the aggregate, US companies have plenty of cash to play with. But some are giving away their buffer against future trouble. Costco’s cash balance, for example, barely covers the special dividend — even if it could all be spared. That explains why the company is borrowing billions to give shareholders their potential tax break. Other companies like Dillard’s and Brown-Forman announced payouts that were bigger than their cash balances, at least as reported in their most recent earnings releases.
If Obama and Congress manage to hammer out a deal, there’s no harm done. And if it includes a dividend tax increase, these companies will be heroes to their shareholders. But some of them are making a risky wager given that the stakes for the economy are supposed to be so high.