Dividend tax rates, currently 15 percent, are due to expire at the end of this year, one of a host of tax breaks going away unless Congress takes action.
If Congress fails to act, the rate will snap to about 40 percent.
A nearly identical scenario played out in 2010, and there may be some lessons to learn from the way businesses behaved the last time around.
An academic paper released this week dug into the events of 2010 and found that dividend-paying companies – especially those owned by insiders – took anticipatory steps to boost regular and special dividends when the fate of U.S. dividend taxes was uncertain in 2010.
The authors, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, said they believed it was the first empirical study of company behavior in the run-up to expiration of all individual tax rates and those for investments in 2010. There had been anecdotal evidence that companies were making payouts anticipating tax policy. For example, Sara Lee Corp issued a release on Oct. 28, 2010, that stated: given the “uncertainty surrounding the renewal of the current dividend tax rates,” its board had “decided to accelerate the payment of the dividend by one week so that stockholders can benefit from the lower dividend tax rate that is currently set to expire at calendar year end.”
The study drilled down to which companies were most likely to pay dividends early and found those with greater insider ownership – defined as a percentage of ownership by the top five positions – were most likely to take action.