So what happened? Several things. The Internet bubble burst and investors (at least temporarily) remembered that stocks do not just go up. Then came Enron and the governance crisis of the early 2000s. As investors were painfully reminded that accounting numbers could not always be trusted, the signaling aspect of dividends came to the forefront (it is harder to play games with cash than it is with accounting numbers). And in the last, but definitely not least, in the US there was a reduction of taxes on dividends (remember dividends come out of corporate earnings and hence the double taxation problem).
In the following piece, the WSJ points out that this year firms are paying more than last year (when they conserved more cash during the "great recession". But the article also reminds us that the lower tax rate on dividends is up next year. It will be interesting to see whether it is reapproved.
Dividends Are Back - WSJ.com:
"Corporate balance sheets, which were squeezed during the recession, are once again brimming with cash. S&P 500 nonfinancial companies had a record $837 billion in cash at the end of the first quarter, up from $665 billion a year earlier, according to S&P.
Of course, there are plenty of headwinds. The tax rate on qualified dividend payments, capped in 2003 at 15%, is set to expire at the end of this year along with some other Bush-era tax cuts. Absent congressional action, the top dividend tax rate will jump to 39.6% next year."