Dividend policies are the regulations and guidelines that companies develop and implement as the means of arranging to make dividend payments to shareholders. Establishing a specific dividend policy is to the advantage of both the company and the shareholder. In order to make sure the policy is workable, a company should develop a viable policy and then run this policy through a number of test scenarios in order to determine what impact the dividend policy would have on the operation of the business.
In many cases, companies choose to explicitly state the provisions within the dividend policy. This is definitely to the advantage of the shareholder, as a well defined policy makes it much easier to project the amount of payout profits generated for the period under consideration and thus be able to determine the size of the dividends that will be issued. When the dividend policy is well defined and documented, it is easy for the shareholder to obtain a written copy and thus be fully informed as to how the policy works.
However, there are cases where the dividend policy is not so well documented. When this is the case, investors sometimes base their assumptions on upcoming dividend payments on what has occurred in the past. While less systematic, it is still possible to project a more or less accurate estimate of what the dividend payout will actually be.
In cases where the dividend policy is not specifically defined, investors often look at the history to spot any trends that emerged in the past. If the dividend payments have been more or less constant for the last several years, and there has been no loss in business volume, it is reasonable to assume the payments will still be in the same general range as before. However, if the dividend history is more volatile, the shareholder may attempt to identify what factors led to the up and down movement of the dividends and determine if any of those factors are relevant to the current dividend period.
In both expressed and implied dividend policy procedures, it is less common for the dividends to be increased. Part of the reason for that is companies tend to look closely at retained earnings and want to make sure the increased level of earnings will be sustained over the long term. Once this upward trend is deemed to be more or less permanent, the company may choose to increase dividends.
Far more common is the practice of reducing dividends. This usually takes place because there is a decrease in the company’s business volume that is not anticipated to be recaptured in the foreseeable future. At other times, the decrease may be due to the need to retain more cash on hand for capital expenses. In both these scenarios, companies tend to notify the shareholders in advance that these factors exist and a chance in dividends will take place in order to meet the challenge to remain profitable.