The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases

By J. B. Heaton (J.B. Heaton, P.C.)

The issue of share repurchases has captured the attention of United States senators on both sides of the aisle, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT., and Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, each proposing legislation limiting share repurchases and dividends. One need not agree with all parts of their plans to acknowledge that excessive dividends and share repurchases can have severe negative social consequences.

In a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship and the Law, I explore five negative consequences of dividends and share repurchases. First, they dramatically increase the riskiness of corporate debt, diverting resources into credit monitoring and credit speculation. Voluntary creditors must charge a high price for credit ex ante – subsidized by tax payers through interest expense deductions – to protect them from the ex post effects of the existing legal regime, and many resources are spent on monitoring and trading on the fluctuating risks of default and only partial recovery on corporate debt. Second, the existing legal regime requires a bankruptcy system to process large and complex corporate failures. Third, it leaves firms less resilient to financial crises.  Fourth, it unfairly shifts costs to involuntary and unsophisticated creditors in violation of the implicit social bargain of limited liability.  Finally, it distorts the supply of securities toward riskier debt that is publicly subsidized through the deductibility of interest, reducing the supply of safer assets.

One possible solution that deserves further study is restricting dividends and share repurchases to corporations that have low debt and adequate insurance against harm to involuntary creditors and pay reasonable wages and benefits. Such a rule would still allow corporations with high debt, little insurance, and low wages and benefits to operate, but they could pay shareholders only after meeting all their other obligations.

This proposal is consistent with what corporate law is supposed to provide to investors and society alike. A long-held view in the academy is that shareholders are “residual claimants” in the sense that they are paid in full only after the corporation pays its creditors. The reality, of course, is far different. Corporations give away significant assets to their shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases long before they have satisfied creditors, both voluntary contract creditors and involuntary tort creditors.  Existing law is quite permissive in allowing indebted corporations to distribute this cash to shareholders. As a result, shareholders are hardly “last paid” capital providers of corporate-law folklore but rather “first-in, first-out, and then some” capital providers. They receive their capital back and much more while the corporation has often very large liabilities outstanding.  As my paper explores, neither corporate law nor voidable transfer law are strong enough to prevent the destructive social impact of dividends and share repurchases.

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J.B. Heaton is a data scientist, financial economist and legal scholar. His paper, “The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases,” is available here.