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Dividends are corporate earnings that companies pass on to their shareholders. There are a number of reasons why a corporation might choose to pass some of its earnings on as dividends. There are also a number of reasons why it might prefer to reinvest all of its earnings back into the company.

A company that is still growing rapidly usually won't pay dividends, because it wants to invest as much as possible into further growth. Even a mature firm that believes it will do a better job of increasing its value (and therefore a better job of increasing its share price) by reinvesting its earnings will choose not to pay dividends. Companies that don't pay dividends might use the money to start a new project, acquire new assets, repurchase some of their shares or even buy out another company.

Also, the choice to not pay dividends may be more beneficial to investors from a tax perspective. Dividends are taxable to investors as ordinary income, which means an investor's tax rate on dividends is the same as his marginal tax rate. Marginal tax rates can be as high as 35% (as of 2012). The capital gains on the sale of appreciated stock can have a lower, long-term capital gains tax rate (typically 15% as of 2012) if the investor has held the stock for more than a year.

Firms that choose to reinvest all of their earnings, instead of issuing dividends, may also be thinking about the high potential expense of issuing new stock. To avoid the risk of needing to raise money this way, they choose to keep all of their earnings.

However, for a mature company that doesn't need to reinvest as much in itself, and that has stable earnings, there are several reasons why issuing dividends can be a good idea. Many investors like the steady income associated with dividends, so they will be more likely to buy that company's stock. Investors also see a dividend payment as a sign of a company's strength and a sign that management has positive expectations for future earnings, which again makes the stock more attractive. A greater demand for a company's stock will increase its price.

A company may also choose not to pay dividends because the decision to start paying dividends or to increase an existing dividend payment is a serious one. A company that eliminates or reduces its existing dividend payment may be viewed unfavorably and its stock price may decrease.

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