Costco: Special Dividend Alert

| About: Costco Wholesale (COST)

The deluge of special dividends announcements continues…

Companies are coming out of the woodwork ahead of anticipated end-of-year (read: fiscal cliff) tax hikes, unleashing payouts to shareholders while lower rates still hold.

Today, Costco (Nasdaq: COST) joins the club, announcing a special dividend of $7 per share, or $3 billion in aggregate. But like I said yesterday about Las Vegas Sands' (NYSE: LVS) whopping $2.26 billion dividend, the windfalls today don't imply a dividend dearth tomorrow.

Just as my colleague, Louis Basenese, has pointed out time and time again, dividend payers aren't going to fly the coop over the coming (possible) tax hikes.

Why? There are two simple reasons:

One, historically, it's simply untrue: "The last time dividend tax rates rose, the number of Americans investing in dividend-paying stocks made a noticeable move higher, not lower."

And two, because shareholders hate dividend cuts. They punish companies that reduce payouts by heading for greener pastures, sending stock prices 6% lower on average.

So as Costco, Las Vegas Sands and the rest of the dividend-paying world proceed to spin the Gatling gun of special disbursements, don't take it as a sign that it's now or never to invest in such stocks. Instead, use it as a reason to take a good, hard look at the companies.

With Las Vegas Sands, for example, it allowed us to discover a fairly new dividend payer that looks to be dead serious about the future of its program. And now, Costco is also showing itself as a promising dividend stock…

A Dividend Palette Piled Higher

Costco's special dividend - to be paid December 18, 2012 to shareholders of record on December 10 - isn't the company's first disbursement, special or otherwise.

It has actually been a solid payer since 2004, making annual raises ever since. Currently, the stock pays a quarterly dividend of $0.275, or $1.10 annualized, giving it a projected yield of 1.14%.

Remember, low yields are hardly a reason to walk away. If you're a long-term income investor, "growth, growth, growth" should be your mantra.

And in this case, Costco's growth rate is impressive. With a five-year average of 15.03%, that initial yield of 1.1% will render a significantly higher yield on cost down the road. Especially if you have the wherewithal to reinvest your dividends.

But can Costco keep delivering such hefty increases? The dividend payout ratio, holding steady in the range of 20% to 30% over the last five years, says absolutely. And management confirmed as much in the last earnings call, reiterating its target dividend growth rate of "13% or 14% a year."

So much for tax hikes forcing companies to put the kibosh on dividends.

In addition, the stock's outperformed the market by a significant margin, gaining 17.11% year-to-date, compared with 13.5% for the S&P 500 over the same period.

The only downside is that the stock's not cheap, trading currently at 24.8 times earnings. That's (slightly) above Costco's own five-year average P/E of 23.9 and above the S&P's P/E of 14.9.

Bottom line: Like I said, take these special dividends as a potential sign of commitment to shareholders and a reason to dig deeper into the companies' respective dividend policies. Just as with Las Vegas Sands and Costco, it reveals that in all likelihood, firms aren't going to throw dividend investors overboard come the end of the year. No matter what bumbling decision comes out of Congress.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.