Dividends and "Corporate Scrooges": WWBGD (What Would Ben Graham Do)?

While U.S. companies have been raking in big profits since the end of the Great Recession, much of those profits are staying locked up on corporate balance sheets. And, in a recent column, The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig takes a look at why that’s happening, and what he thinks the great Benjamin Graham would say about such tactics.

“To be sure, at many companies the cash piling up is at global operations that generate ‘undistributed foreign earnings’ that can’t be brought home, under U.S. law, without incurring taxes of up to 35%. But hundreds of billions in cash remain available — and idle,” Zweig writes. He notes that the portion of earnings paid out as dividends over the last 12 months is the lowest in the past 75 years. “Dividends are going up,” he says, “but cash is still piling up far faster than most industrial giants can possibly find a prudent use for it. Of course, investors themselves might have a better use for the cash, if they could get at it.”

Zweig says payout ratios have fallen as investors have turned to companies that use extra cash to buy back their own shares, rather than pay larger dividends. Continued fears about the economic recovery have also led companies to hold onto cash rather than return it to shareholders — even though, as Graham noted long ago, investors often would be better served by getting back some of that cash, rather than having it sit in companies’ coffers, Zweig says.

Zweig says three dividend-related proposals Graham made some 60 years ago should be considered again today. Graham said that:

  • Investors should speak up, and demand that companies return capital to them if the firms aren’t generating high enough returns on that capital;
  • Companies should set formal dividend policies;
  • Companies should pay out two-thirds of profits as dividends