Despite Cash Hoards, Companies Aren’t Paying Out

With cash reserves of U.S. public companies sitting at all-time record highs, investors might think dividend payments would be booming as well. Combined with the relatively new 15% dividend income tax rate, investors should be reaping the rewards of record cash payouts. However, the average S&P 500 company is paying less than 2% annually out to its shareholders.

Why does the average large cap stock pay out less than 2% in dividends? Well as we’ve seen this year, M&A activity has been red hot. Corporate profit margins are at cycle highs, so further cost savings have to be squeezed out via merger synergies. So far in 2005, deals have been running rampant on Wall Street. One need just look at the recent earnings report from Goldman Sachs (GS) to see evidence of that.

In addition to mergers and acquisitions, the rise of stock option compensation over the last two decades certainly accounts for the reduction in dividend yields. In order to minimize the equity dilution from option issuances, companies need to instate massive share repurchase programs. The money to do so comes straight from free cash flow that would otherwise be widely available for cash payouts to shareholders.

Throughout history, stock market returns have come from the combination of equity price appreciation and dividend payments. Yields that have averaged about 4 percent historically, along with 6 percent annual growth in earnings, explains the 10 percent average annual return from equities since the 1800’s.

With 2% dividends and peak margins upon us, it’s no wonder that some suspect future stock market returns, say during the next decade or so, will fail to hit the magic 10 percent mark. Even if somehow peak margins can be sustained, which is unlikely, investors are only looking at 8 percent annual returns from stock indices in the near to intermediate term. While that kind of performance pales in comparison to the great bull market of 1982-1999, it will still mark the highest return of any asset class, so abandoning the stock market because of it makes little sense.