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3 Companies Who May Pay the Next Special Dividend

Tickers in this article: COP COST MSFT AAPL

So who will be the next big-time, special-dividend donor that hasn't already broken the good news? The first likely suspect may be Apple (AAPL) . Talk about a strong balance sheet! AAPL can boast a $29 billion cache in total cash and absolutely no debt. They can afford to be generous with plenty left over.

Another likely possibility would be ConocoPhillips (COP) which recently announced plans to sell its 8.4% interest in the Kashagan oil project in the Caspian Sea. The proceeds from the sale would be close to $5 billion and would be a big step in COP's goal to divest itself of billions of dollars of assets this year and next.

COP is in the process of a three-year repositioning, "aimed at improving its balance sheet and focusing on more profitable and less risky unconventional fields in North America," according to a Wall Street Journal article on November 27.

"Its plan includes $15 to $20 billion in asset disposals, large-scale share buybacks a sort of tax-free dividend and the spinoff earlier this year of its refining arm..." the Journal reported. The Kashagan deal is expected to close in the first half of 2013 which would add to existing asset sales increasing the total to $7 billion.

COP's operating cash flow (trailing 12 months) as of September 30 was close to $16 billion, but their total cash was a diminutive $1.27 billion, making a large special cash dividend less likely. At a price of $57-per-share, COP already gives a dividend yield-to-price of 4.63%, one of the most generous among big energy companies.

The one-year chart below demonstrates COP's share price movement after it spun off Phillips 66 (PSX) compared to its dividend payout ratio. Currently it's at a modest 33% of earnings. COP ChartCOP data by YCharts

If you're looking for the next Costco-style special dividend, look for companies with lots of cash on its balance sheet. Also look for a company that has received well-deserved criticism for hoarding cash instead of being extra generous with its shareholders.

One such company that comes to mind is Microsoft (MSFT) which fits that description to a "T". This would be an auspicious time for MSFT to offer a special dividend payout, having just had its one-year price target lowered by Jefferies to $31.

As of September 30 MSFT was sitting on a boatload of cash. Its total cash is over $66 billion and their levered free cash flow is a mighty $24.45 billion. If MSFT doesn't think it should give shareholders a special, end-of-the year dividend windfall, all I can say is "give me a break." If any company should pay out a bonus dividend, Microsoft should be the poster-child.

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL, COP and MSFT.