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I am trying to understand to which securities Return of Capital is applicable; I'm especially interested in stocks.

From Wikipedia:

Return of capital (ROC) refers to payments back to "capital owners" (shareholders, partners, unitholders) that exceed the growth (net income/taxable income) of a business.

I understand what that means. I know REITs, mutual funds and ETF's sometimes distribute ROC, but what about stocks?

I tried looking at key stats on stocks (Morningstar, Google Finance) but I can't find any information about ROC and stocks.

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    Beware of the difference between "Return Of Capital" and "Return On Capital" as the ROC acronym could be used in different cases. The latter would also be where Assets, Equity and other values could be used to determine how efficient a company is where it comes to using its resources. – JB King Mar 14 '13 at 21:11
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Off the top of my head, I don't know of any publicly-traded companies that routinely earmark distributions as return of capital, but theoretically, it's certainly applicable to any publicly-traded company. The Wikipedia article gives one situation in which a publicly-traded company may use return of capital:

Public business may return capital as a means to increase the debt/equity ratio and increase their leverage (risk profile).

Since return of capital is a distribution, it shrinks the firm's equity, thus increasing its leverage. Investopedia also has an article, Dividend Facts You May Not Know, that gives an example of when return of capital might be used:

Sometimes, especially in the case of a special, large dividend, part of the dividend is actually declared by the company to be a return of capital. In this case, instead of being taxed at the time of distribution, the return of capital is used to reduce the basis of the stock, making for a larger capital gain down the road, assuming the selling price is higher than the basis. For instance, if you buy shares with a basis of $10 each and you get a $1 special dividend, 55 cents of which is return of capital, the taxable dividend is 45 cents, the new basis is $9.45 and you will pay capital gains tax on that 55 cents when you sell your shares sometime in the future.

A company may choose to earmark some or all of its distribution as return of capital in order to provide shareholders with a more beneficial tax treatment. The IRS describes this different tax treatment:

Distributions that qualify as a return of capital are not dividends. A return of capital is a return of some or all of your investment in the stock of the company. A return of capital reduces the basis of your stock.

These distributions don't necessarily count as taxable income, except in some instances:

Once the basis of your stock has been reduced to zero, any further non-dividend distribution is capital gain.

The IRS also states:

A distribution generally qualifies as a return of capital if the corporation making the distribution does not have any accumulated or current year earnings and profits.

In this case, the firm is lowering its equity because it's paying distributions out of that equity instead of accumulated earnings/profits. A company may use return of capital to maintain a distribution even in times of financial difficulty.

In the context of closed-end funds, however, return of capital can be much more complicated and can affect the fund's performance and reputation in numerous ways.


Also, JB King is correct in cautioning you that "return of capital" is not the same thing as "return on capital*. The latter is a method for valuing a company and determining "how efficient a company is where it comes to using its resources." (to quote JB King's comment again).

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