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Tax Policy and the Dividend Puzzle

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  • B. Douglas Bernheim

Abstract

This paper offers a new explanation of the dividend puzzle, based upon a model in which firms attempt to signal profitability by distrubuting cash to shareholders. I assume that dividends and repurchases are identical, except that dividends are taxed more heavily. Nevertheless, I demonstrate that, under certain plausible conditions, corporations will pay dividends. Indeed, some firms will actually pay dividends, and then retrieve a portion of these payments by issuing new equity (perhaps through a dividend reinvestment plan), despite the fact that this appears to create gratuitous tax liabilities. In addition to providing an explanation for the dividend puzzle, I also derive a number of strong results concerning corporate payout decisions and government tax policy. Some of these results are surprising. For example, the relationship between repurchases and firm quality is hump-shaped. Moreover, despite the fact that a higher dividend tax rate depresses dividend payments, it does not affect either government revenue or welfare.

Suggested Citation

  • B. Douglas Bernheim, 1990. "Tax Policy and the Dividend Puzzle," NBER Working Papers 3434, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:3434
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    1. Constantinides, George M & Scholes, Myron S, 1980. " Optimal Liquidation of Assets in the Presence of Personal Taxes: Implications for Asset Pricing," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 35(2), pages 439-449, May.
    2. James M. Poterba & Lawrence H. Summers, 1984. "The Economic Effects of Dividend Taxation," Working papers 343, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
    3. Bagwell, Laurie Simon & Shoven, John B, 1989. "Cash Distributions to Shareholders," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 3(3), pages 129-140, Summer.
    4. Milgrom, Paul & Roberts, John, 1986. "Price and Advertising Signals of Product Quality," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(4), pages 796-821, August.
    5. Poterba, James M. & Summers, Lawrence H., 1983. "Dividend taxes, corporate investment, and `Q'," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 22(2), pages 135-167, November.
    6. Ambarish, Ramasastry & John, Kose & Williams, Joseph, 1987. " Efficient Signalling with Dividends and Investments," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 42(2), pages 321-343, June.
    7. John, Kose & Williams, Joseph, 1985. " Dividends, Dilution, and Taxes: A Signalling Equilibrium," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 40(4), pages 1053-1070, September.
    8. Sudipto Bhattacharya, 1979. "Imperfect Information, Dividend Policy, and "The Bird in the Hand" Fallacy," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 10(1), pages 259-270, Spring.
    9. Asquith, Paul & Mullins, David Jr., 1986. "Equity issues and offering dilution," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 15(1-2), pages 61-89.
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