The change will allow the family and other Wal-Mart shareholders to record the income this year, when the federal tax rate on dividends tops out at 15%.
Next year, if the Obama administration and Republicans are unable to reach a compromise, that rate is set to jump sharply to 39.6%. High earners will have to pay an additional 3.8% on most investment income to help pay for the new federal health care law, bringing the total possible tax bite to 43.4%.
Wal-Mart is the biggest company to accelerate its dividend payments this year in anticipation of higher taxes next year, following such manufacturing companies as Leggett & Platt and Myers Industries.
Even if a compromise is reached and taxes do not rise quite as high as scheduled next year, investors and companies of all sorts appear to be betting that tax rates will be higher next year.
Many companies are preparing for this by making special, one-time dividend payments to take advantage of the current low tax rates. Markit, a financial data firm, estimates that 109 public companies will issue special dividends in the fourth quarter, more than three times as many as have done so in most recent years.
Like several of the companies making these moves, Wal-Mart has board members who own a large portion of the companys shares and who stand to benefit from the change. In Wal-Marts case, the Waltons own 48% of Wal-Marts stock, or 1.6 billion shares, and control three of the companys 16 board seats. Steve Wynn, who owns about 10% of Wynn Resorts, is leading his company to issue a one-time dividend for $750 million this week.
Two recent studies, one done by Markit, found that companies where board members own a large percentage of the companys shares have been more likely to make dividend maneuvers aimed at helping shareholders avoid higher taxes.
Some people will say that this is the insiders looking out for their own interest, but on the other hand they are doing whats good for shareholders because their interests are aligned with shareholders, said Michelle Hanlon, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is the co-author of a study on the topic.
A spokesman for Wal-Mart, Randy Hargrove, said the Walton family members on the companys board recused themselves from the vote last Friday to move up the dividend payment.
The company said that it made the decision to move the dividend payment because of the unresolved tax debate taking place in Washington.
The board determined that moving our dividend payment up by a few days to 2012 was in the best interests of our shareholders, the company said in a statement.
The White House has said dividends should go back to being taxed at ordinary income rates, as they were before the 2003 tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration. Republicans in Congress have argued that the rate on dividends should stay where it is now, 15%, but many financial advisers assume that it will rise to at least 20%. Wherever the two sides end up, the 3.8% surcharge related to the new health care law will be added to the bill of wealthy taxpayers.
If Wal-Mart had issued its dividend on January 2, as was originally planned, and the tax rates rose to the levels proposed by the White House, the Walton family would have owed the federal government $276 million, according to Kenneth K Bezozo, a tax lawyer and partner at the law firm of Haynes & Boone. By moving the payment up and paying this years rates, their tax bill on the dividends will come to $95.4 million, Bezozo said.
The tweaks being made to dividend policies are among the many maneuvers that business owners and investors are using to get ahead of the impending rise in tax rates.
Because of the increase in the tax rate on capital gains from 15% to possibly as high as 23.8%, including the health care law surcharge some investors have sold winning stocks to pay taxes on their gains this year.
Other investors have recently sold their dividend-paying stocks, worried that the shares could become less valuable when the tax rate on dividends increases.
For companies, the dividend payments have been the most popular way to help shareholders. Markit has estimated that companies will be issuing a combined $13.9 billion in special dividends in the fourth quarter of this year, a much higher total than normal. This is expected to lead to a spike in tax revenue for the federal government in 2012. But it will lead to a greater loss of tax revenue in 2013.
Robert Gordon, who advises companies on tax policy as president of Twenty-First Securities, said that he had been advising companies scheduled to pay quarterly dividends in the first few weeks of 2013 to move the payments up to 2012.
He is expecting more to follow Wal-Marts lead, but even without them, he is staying busy.
This is the biggest year weve ever had by far, Gordon said.