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3 Companies Who May Pay the Next Special Dividend

Tickers in this article: COP COST MSFT AAPL
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It was the morning of November 27, a sleepy Tuesday in my neck of the woods. I looked at my "wish list" of stocks I might want to buy before the "Santa Claus rally" commenced.

Having just visited my local Costco (COST) the evening before, I decided to check the opening price. COST had opened the morning of the 27th at $96.30. Talking to myself as I sometimes do, I said, "if it pulls back to $95 I'm going to buy some shares". Famous last words!

Shares of COST never dipped below $95.77 that fateful day. By the time I checked my trading account the next morning, shares had opened at $100.44 and by the end of Wednesday's trading session the stock closed at $102.58, up $6.07 from Tuesday's closing price of $96.51.

I swallowed hard and resisted the urge to kick myself. After all how could I have known what was to be announced after I went to sleep Tuesday evening? The proclamation from on high was that COST was going to give its shareholders a special cash dividend of $7 per share. Those fortunate enough to own shares at $96 were suddenly getting a 7.29% unexpected holiday bonus.

Payment will be made to shareholders of record as of the close of business on December 10 and will cost the company approximately $3 billion. It will be in addition to the company's regular quarterly dividend of $0.275 per share, which gets paid out Nov. 30.

The CFO of COST told the financial world why they were being so generous. He characterized it as their "latest effort in returning capital to our shareholders while maintaining our conservative capital structure." Mr. Galanti went on to say that the company's "strong balance sheet," which includes total cash (most recent quarter) of $4.85 billion, allowed Costco to be so good to their shareholders.

Although I was happy for all those lucky folks who were not only getting this incredible bonus but were also going to receive the company's regular quarterly dividend of $0.275 per share, which will be paid on November 30, I started wondering which companies might be the next surprising benefactors.

After all, any dividend paid out by December 31 will benefit from the current, low, 15% tax rate on qualified dividends. After the dawning of 2013, however, the maximum tax rate on dividends may increase to as high as 43.4% for top income earners.

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Of course that would only happen if Congress decided, with the president's approval, to begin taxing dividends at ordinary income tax rates and applies a 3.8% surtax to pay for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. A compromise may be reached before midnight on December 31, but no one seems certain one way or another.