Corporations earn profits – they do not distribute all of it. Part of profit is ploughed back or held back as retained earnings. Part of the profit gets distributed to the shareholders. The part that is distributed is the dividend. The ratio of the actual distribution or dividend, and the total distributable profits, is called dividend payout ratio. How much of its profits should a corporation distribute? There are several considerations that apply in answering this question. Hence, companies have to frame and work on a definitive policy of dividend payout ratio. Of course, no corporate management can afford to stick to a fixed dividend payout ratio year after year – neither is such fixity of dividend payout ratio required or expected. However, management has to broadly decide its policy on its broad attitude towards distribution – liberal dividend payout ratio, or conservative dividend payout ratio, etc. If one were to ask this question in context of debt sources of capital – for example, how much interest should a corporation pay to its bankers, the answer is straight forward. As interest paid is the cost of the borrowing, the lesser the interest a corporation pays, the better it is. Besides, companies do not have choice on paying of interest to lenders – as the rate of interest is contractually fixed. Rate of dividends may be fixed in case of preference shares too. However, in case of equity shares, there is no fixed rate of dividends. It cannot be said that the dividend paid is the cost of equity capital – if that was the case, corporations may try to minimize the dividend distribution. Hence, the following points emerge as regards the dividend distribution policy: • The cost of equity is defined as the rate at which the corporation must earn on its equity to keep the market price of the equity shares constant. Let us further suppose that the market price of the shares is obtained by capitalizing the earnings of the corporation at a certain capitalization rate – the capitalization rate itself depending on the riskiness or beta of the industry. Suppose the corporation does not earn any profit. Shareholders were expecting a certain rate of return on their shareholding – hence, share prices will fall at the expected return on equity. On the other hand, if just the expected rate of return is earned by the corporation, the price of equity shares remains constant if the earnings are entirely distributed, and exactly grows by the expected rate of return if the earnings are entirely retained. The above discussion leads to the conclusion that the cost of equity is not the dividends but the return on equity – hence, a corporation cannot work on the objective of minimizing dividends. Equity shareholders are the owners of the corporation – hence, retained earnings ultimately belong to the shareholders. Supposing a company earns return on equity of 10%, and retains the whole of it, the retained earnings increase the net asset value (NAV) of the equity shares exactly at the rate of 10%. Assuming there are no other factors affecting the equity price of the company, the market price of
the shares should exactly go up by 10% commensurate with the increase in the NAV of the shares. That is to say, shareholders gain by way of appreciation in market price to the extent of 10%. On the other hand, if the company distributes the entire earnings, shareholders earn a cash return of 10%, and there is no impact on the NAV of the shares, hence, the same should remain unchanged. Therefore, in both the cases, the shareholders earned a return of 10% - in the first case, by way of growth or capital appreciation, and in the second case, by way of income. In other words, merely because the corporation is not distributing profits does not mean it is depriving shareholders of the rate of return on equity. The above two points reflect the indifference, sometimes referred to as irrelevance of...
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