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3 Companies That May Pay the Next Special Dividend

Stocks in this article: COST AAPL COP MSFT

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.

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.

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