Monday, July 12, 2010

Will higher taxes bring dividend stocks down?

Back in 2003 the Bush administration cut the top rates on dividends and capital gains to 15%. After seven years the preferential treatment of investment income is set to expire. If congress doesn’t extend the tax cuts, the top rates on dividend income could increase to as much as 39%. This leaves many investors wondering whether dividend stocks will be negatively affected by the tax hike.

Since 2003 there has been great interest in dividend paying stocks. Many companies such as Yum Brands (YUM) initiated dividends for the first time ever, while companies like Microsoft (MSFT) paid onetime special dividend payments to shareholders. In addition to that several dividend focused exchange traded funds such as iShares Dow Jones Select Dividend index (DVY) and SPDR S&P Dividend (SDY) were formed, attracting millions in assets under management. In addition to that many long time dividend payers such as PepsiCo (PEP) started increasing distributions at a higher pace than before, which further benefited their shareholders.

As a result, some dividend investors are concerned that the increase of tax rates on dividends will negatively affect payouts, which would negatively affect dividend stock prices for the next few years. In general the future tax rates on investment income for 2011 and beyond are still not set in stone by Congress, which makes most assumptions on taxation of dividends or capital gains pure speculation. It is possible that the top rate on dividend income could only increase to 23.60%, as 20% was the highest tax on dividend income for which Obama campaigned in 2008, while the 3.60% comes as the extra tax for high income earners which generate investment income.

So should dividend investors worry about the potential increase in taxes on dividend income? The answer is that it depends. While some companies might cut dividends as a result of the tax hike, many dividend payers would keep following a strategy of regularly raising distributions, provided that these companies can generate enough in free cash flow. Most dividend growth investors would not be affected by much, particularly since most dividend achievers and dividend aristocrats have increased distributions for over 10 and 25 years, which was before the Bush tax cuts were initiated. The companies that are less likely to cut distributions than grow them include:

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) engages in the research and development, manufacture, and sale of various products in the health care field worldwide.Johnson & Johnson is a major component of the S&P 500, Dow Industrials and the Dividend Aristocrats Indexes. One of the company’s largest shareholders includes Warren Buffett. JNJ has been consistently increasing its dividends for 48 consecutive years.(analysis)

McDonald’s Corporation (MCD), together with its subsidiaries, franchises and operates McDonald’s restaurants in the food service industry worldwide. The company is also a dividend aristocrat, which has been consistently increasing its dividends for 33 consecutive years. (analysis)

The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G), together with its subsidiaries, provides branded consumer goods products worldwide. The company operates in three global business units (GBU): Beauty, Health and Well-Being, and Household Care. Procter & Gamble is a dividend aristocrat as well as a component of the S&P 500 index. One of its most prominent investors includes the legendary Warren Buffett. Procter & Gamble has been increasing its dividends for the past 54 consecutive years. (analysis)

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT)operates retail stores in various formats worldwide. The company is member of the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrials Average and the S&P Dividend Aristocrats indexes. Wal-Mart Stores has consistently increased dividends every year for 36 years. (analysis)

The Coca-Cola Company (KO) manufactures, distributes, and markets nonalcoholic beverage concentrates and syrups worldwide. The company is member of the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrials and the S&P Dividend Aristocrats indexes. Coca-Cola has paid uninterrupted dividends on its common stock since 1893 and increased payments to common shareholders every year for 48 years. (analysis)

Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM) engages in the exploration, production, transportation, and sale of crude oil and natural gas. The company is a component of the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrials and the Dividend Aristocrats indexes. Exxon Mobil has been consistently increasing its dividends for 28 years in a row, and has paid dividends for over one hundred years. (analysis)

In addition to that, investors could avoid paying taxes on dividend income by investing through tax-deferred accounts such as the ROTH IRA. There is a contribution limit of $5000 for taxpayers, and there is also an additional catch up contribution for taxpayers over the age of 50. Those contributions should come from earned income (such as employee income) and are phased out for high income individuals. While a ROTH IRA would not generate any tax savings today, any money put in it compound tax free forever, there are no required minimum distributions and any distributions from it are tax free.

Furthermore I doubt that quality dividend stocks such as the dividend achievers or dividend aristocrats would be affected much even if tax rates increase, because not every individual would pay top rates on dividend income. In addition to that dividend returns are much less volatile than stock price returns, which is the reason why retirees prefer dividend stocks in retirement. Focusing too much on just one aspect of the investment process could lead to subpar returns over time. Many investors who wait for a few months longer before they sold their stock in order to qualify for long-term capital gains treatment could see their paper gains evaporate and turn into massive losses. This is just one reason why focusing just on tax rates while ignoring business or market fundamentals of the companies one is invested in is a dangerous exercise.

Full Disclosure: Long all stocks mentioned except MSFT

This article was featured on the Carnival of Money Stories – Starting A Sideline Edition

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