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Disappearing Dividends: Changing Firm Characteristics Or Lower Propensity To Pay?

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  • Eugene F. Fama
  • Kenneth R. French

Abstract

The proportion of U.S. firms paying dividends drops sharply during the 1980s and 1990s. Among NYSE, AMEX, and Nasdaq firms, the proportion of dividend payers falls from 66.5% in 1978 to only 20.8% in 1999. The decline is due in part to an avalanche of new listings that tilts the population of publicly traded firms toward small firms with low profitability and strong growth opportunities—the timeworn characteristics of firms that typically do not pay dividends. But this is not the whole story. The authors' more striking finding is that, no matter what their characteristics, firms in general have become less likely to pay dividends. The authors use two different methods to disentangle the effects of changing firm characteristics and changing propensity to pay on the percent of dividend payers. They find that, of the total decline in the proportion of dividend payers since 1978, roughly one‐third is due to the changing characteristics of publicly traded firms and two‐thirds is due to a reduced propensity to pay dividends. This lower propensity to pay is quite general—dividends have become less common among even large, profitable firms. Share repurchases jump in the 1980s, and the authors investigate whether repurchases contribute to the declining incidence of dividend payments. It turns out that repurchases are mainly the province of dividend payers, thus leaving the decline in the percent of payers largely unexplained. Instead, the primary effect of repurchases is to increase the already high payouts of cash dividend payers.

Suggested Citation

  • Eugene F. Fama & Kenneth R. French, 2001. "Disappearing Dividends: Changing Firm Characteristics Or Lower Propensity To Pay?," Journal of Applied Corporate Finance, Morgan Stanley, vol. 14(1), pages 67-79, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:jacrfn:v:14:y:2001:i:1:p:67-79
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6622.2001.tb00321.x
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