Quandries over Corporate Actions at Global Financial Data

Because of the breadth of data that Global Financial Data provides in its UK and US Stock Database, providing data from 1601 to 2018, GFD runs into problems of coverage that no other database encounters.  Today, stocks trade thousands or even millions of shares on a daily basis. Data on stock prices, shares outstanding and corporate actions are kept in exacting detail by the exchanges and by data providers and calculating indices poses few problems because computers can use their algorithms to spin out thousands of results on a daily basis.  Unfortunately, this was not always the case. In the 1800s, stock volume was often extremely low and many stocks did not trade over the course of an entire month.  The low volume day for the New York Stock Exchange was March 16, 1830 when only 31 shares traded on the entire exchange. Up until the 1870s, the New York Times was able to list every trade on the NYSE in each issue as did the London Times for stocks traded in London.  Today thousands of shares trade every nanosecond. To calculate price and return indices, you need three things, price data, corporate actions and shares outstanding. Global Financial Data has done everything it can to obtain as complete a record of prices, corporate actions and shares outstanding as is possible, but the further back you go in time, the more difficult it is to obtain this information.  

Sources for the Data

For the United Kingdom, the Course of the Exchange kept data on prices, shares outstanding and dividends from 1811 until the present.  Bradshaw’s Railway Manual was first published in 1848, The Investors Monthly Manual, published by The Economist, provided larger coverage of the London Stock Exchange than the Course of the Exchange and was published from 1864 until 1930, and the Stock Exchange Yearbook was first published in 1875.  In 1930, The Economist noted in The Investors Monthly Manual that it was ceasing publication because data on London stocks was readily available, especially since the Complete Stock Exchange Investment List was published on a monthly basis, but unfortunately, only a handful of libraries kept copies of the Investment List while dozens of libraries  kept copies of The Investors Monthly Manual. Nevertheless, between these books, continuous coverage of dividends and shares outstanding are available for the United Kingdom from 1811 to date. Unfortunately, because the United States hosted several regional exchanges and bank and insurance companies were listed over-the-counter, no comparable books exist for the United States in the 1800s. Poor introduced the American Railroad Journal in 1832 and the magazine began providing regular tables on the railroads in 1851.  Poor began publishing his Railroad Manuals in 1868 and continued publication until the company was bought out by Standard Statistics in 1941. William Buck Dana first published the Commercial and Financial Chronicle in 1865.  The goal of Dana was to make it an American version of The Economist. The weekly journal was preceded by Hunt’s Merchants Magazine and Commercial Review which was introduced in 1839, but stopped publication during the civil war. Our record of the U.S. stock market after the Civil War wouldn’t exist without Dana’s weekly journal.  The Investor’s Supplement, a monthly summary of the markets, was introduced in 1875 by Dana, and the Bank and Quotation Record replaced The Investor’s Supplement in 1928.  Each of these expanded the CFC’s stock coverage. The Manual of Statistics began publication in 1879, but the real growth in coverage came with the Moody’s Manual of Corporation Securities which covered thousands of industrial, transport and finance stocks beginning in 1900.  Although Poor’s Railroad Manuals and the Investor’s Supplements covered the primary industrial stocks that were listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Moody’s Manual became the first to cover the full spectrum of industrial stocks that were listed in the United States. Despite the introduction of all of these sources, there was no American equivalent to the British Course of the Exchange or the Investor’s Monthly Manual that provided complete coverage of share prices, dividends and shares outstanding in the United States during the 1800s.  Consequently, GFD has had to piece together these three important variables from an array of different sources.  The New York Stock Exchange was generally well covered by these publications and Joseph G. Martin’s A Century of Finance provided fairly complete coverage of the Boston Stock Exchange from 1798 to 1898, but other exchanges were less well covered.  

Corporate Actions Explained

The provision of cash dividends, stock dividends, stock splits and rights has changed dramatically over time and few people are aware of how GFD differentiates between these corporate actions and how they impact the total return to investors. For cash dividends, GFD has divided them into five types: Regular Cash Dividends, Extra Cash Dividends, Optional Cash Dividends, Special Cash Dividends and Liquidating Cash Dividends.  A regular cash dividend is paid, usually on a recurring basis, over the course of the year. Historically, both bonds and stocks received payments twice a year, but in the late 1800s, companies began making stock payments quarterly, which is the norm today. An Extra Cash Dividend is a payment that is made to shareholders as the result of higher profits; however, the company is under no obligation to continue the extra cash dividend in the future whereas it is expected that if the company raises its regular cash dividend, that increase will be perpetuated in the future.  Nevertheless, extra dividends tended to become regular payments and were usually repeated several years in a row at the same amount. Because these dividends achieved some degree of regularity, they are included in our calculations of the dividend yield of the company.  An optional cash dividend can be paid in either cash or shares at the discretion of the shareholder. A Special Cash Dividend was designed to be a one-time dividend that occurred because of special circumstances and was not going to be repeated.  For example, in 2004, Microsoft had too much cash.  What a problem! Microsoft did not see any good investment opportunities, so Microsoft paid a $3 dividend to its shareholders and let them decide how to invest the money. Similarly, in 1993, General Dynamics sold a division of the company and not seeing any good investment opportunities for the cash, distributed the money to shareholders in three special dividends of $20, $18 and $12.  During World War I, American corporations were encouraged to support the war effort and did so by paying dividends not in cash, but in Liberty Bonds or cash for Liberty Bonds.  These were treated as a special dividend since they were not provided on a regular basis. Of course, payment can be in kind as well. When Prohibition ended, the National Chemical Company distributed the whiskey they had put in storage in 1918 as a special dividend to shareholders. When the Dutch East India Company paid dividends to its shareholders in the 1600s, the company often provided payment in the goods they brought back to the Netherlands from Indonesia and other parts of Asia.  Payment was made in mace, paper, nutmeg, cloves and other goods. During the 1600s, there was a struggle for control of the Dutch East India Company between merchants who owned shares and wanted to be paid in kind so they could sell the spices at a profit, and the passive investors who just wanted cash.  In the long run, the passive investors won the battle of ownership and today dividends in kind are rare. A final type of cash dividend is the liquidating dividend which is paid when the company has decided to shut down its operations.  As the company sells off its assets, it distributes the proceeds to shareholders in the form of a liquidating dividend. The opposite of a cash dividend is an assessment.  Almost no companies assess shareholders anymore because assessments were very unpopular.  The goal of owning stock is to receive money from the company, not to pay it.  Assessments were popular for English railroads in the 1840s and for mining and oil stocks in the United States in the 1800s.  The idea behind the assessment was that shareholders could fund the company on a payment plan.  Building a railroad or mining for gold required a lot of capital, and the company would only ask for money when they were ready to extend invest new capital.  An English Railroad share might have a par value of £100 and the company would ask for £10 when the shares were first issued.  When those funds were used up, the railroad could ask for £10 more until the £100 was completely paid up.  The par value set a limit on how much the company could demand from its shareholders and in most cases, the company never asked for the full par value of £100.  Instead, at some point in time, the company would do a reverse split and 5 shares of £20 became 1 share of £100 and no more calls could be made on shareholders. American mining stocks enticed investors by having a low par value of $1 or $5.  The mining company would ask for ten cents or twenty cents at a time as the company dug the mine deeper and deeper into the ground.  The hope was that eventually, the company would strike gold and the investors would make a large profit, though that was the exception rather than the rule. What could go wrong with payment on the installment plan as assessment funding was known is illustrated by Overend, Gurney and Co. which issued £50 Par shares at £15 in 1865 assuring investors that they had no plans to assess them the remaining £35. However, the company went bankrupt in 1866 and the shares plunged to zero.  The company still had outstanding liabilities and the creditors demanded that the company’s shareholders, who had lost everything in the company, pay an additional £35 to cover the losses of the debtors.  This added insult to injury because not only had investors lost everything they had put in the company, but they had to pay out additional money to the company which they would never get back. Lawsuits followed, but the courts said the shareholders had to pay.  

Stock Splits and Dividends

It is also important to understand how companies differentiated between stock splits and stock dividends before World War II.  Today, companies rarely differentiate between a 5:4 split and a 25% stock dividend, but 100 years ago this was important.  Originally, in the United States, shares were issued at $100.  The company would issue 100,000 shares and the capital of the company would be equal to $10 million.  If the company paid a 100% stock dividend, this not only doubled the number of outstanding shares, but doubled the capital of the company.  In the 1800s, many railroads would pay the capital required to increase the value of the company into the company’s treasury rather than pay the money out to shareholders. On the other hand, when the company split the stock, they would replace one $100 par share with two $50 par shares or 5 $20 par shares.  The number of shares outstanding would double, but the capital in the company stayed the same.  A company could have both a stock split and stock dividend occur simultaneously, for example a 4:1 split and a 50% stock dividend which converted into 6 new shares for investors. By the 1920s, these accounting differences were seen as superfluous and companies began issuing “no par” shares. Companies can also provide stock distributions to shareholders.  A stock dividend gives shareholders additional shares in the company itself while a stock distribution gives investors shares in another company, usually one that is spun off from the parent.  For example, in 2007, Altria spun off its Kraft Foods division, providing each shareholder with 0.692 share Kraft Foods Inc. and in 2008 Philip Morris spun off Philip Morris International, the foreign division of Philip Morris to Altria shareholders. The other way that shares were distributed to investors in the 1800s and early 1900s was through a rights distribution.  If a company wanted to raise additional capital, they can either sell shares to the general public, or they can sell shares to existing shareholders.  Selling shares to the general public enables the company to raise more capital, but it reduces existing shareholders’ share of ownership in the company.  Distributing rights to existing shareholders allows them to maintain their existing share of ownership in the company, and if they don’t want to increase their ownership, they can sell their shares to someone who wants to obtain ownership in the company.  Today, ownership is so diversified that rights distributions are rarely used because few investors are concerned about reductions in their share of ownership in the company, but in the 1800s and early 1900s they were quite popular. The value of the rights depended upon how much shareholders were required to pay for a new share and how many shares they were allowed to buy.  For example, a stock might be trading at $100.  The company could issue the right to buy 1/3 share at $50. In effect, this would be the same as a 33% stock dividend. Using the rights formula, this would give the value of the right at $12.50.  On the other hand, if the price to buy a share was $80, the value of the right would be $5.  The value of the right increased as the number of shares issued increased and the amount shareholders had to pay for new shares decreased.  If a shareholder sold his right, it could be viewed as an effective cash dividend.  

Descriptions of Dividends in the GFDatabase

Although GFD has been able to obtain historical data for prices, shares outstanding and dividends, the data are not always complete.  Price data might be available from one source, dividends from a second and shares outstanding from a third. We might have share prices, but lack complete data on dividends or shares outstanding. We need to know when there are gaps in the data so GFD and subscribers can know when to include or exclude data from individual stocks for their index. GFD has put together a system to aid subscribers in determining the coverage of stocks in the 1800s when data was often unavailable or missing.  With this information, subscribers can accurately choose the stocks that will create indices for their analysis of the stock market. For price data, there can be long stretches when no data are available, even in the 1900s. For a stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange, this is rarely an issue, but GFD covers a dozen regional exchanges and over-the-counter transactions for which coverage can be spotty. There can be gaps of a few years or even a decade for smaller stocks that were listed over the counter.  To help subscribers differentiate between the liquid and illiquid stocks, we have calculated the percentage of months in which each stock has data. The situation with dividends is more complicated. Today, some stocks pay dividends and some don’t, but in the 1800s investors bought stocks to receive dividends, not to receive capital gains. Most companies tried to pay dividends whenever possible.  Bonds and preferred shares were the investments of choice for most people, and common stocks mainly attracted speculators.  But how do you know whether a stock did not pay a dividend, or whether the dividend data is simply unavailable?  We divide stocks into several categories to help subscribers solve this dilemma. Dividend Payers are stocks that paid at least one dividend during its life.  Our research shows that we were able to find all the dividends that were paid and if there are any periods when no dividend was paid, no dividends are included in the stock’s record.  To the best of our knowledge, the dividend record for these stocks is complete, though there may be periods when no dividend was paid by the company. Non-Dividend Payers are stocks that never paid a dividend between the time the stock listed and the time the stock delisted, and we have verified that this is the case.  Many mining companies and railroads in the 1800s fell in this category. Incomplete refers to stocks for which we were able to find some dividend data, but for which we know there are other periods when the company probably paid a dividend, but we have been unable to determine when these dividends occurred, or how much the dividends were for.  In those cases, we have indicated in parentheses the time period where the dividend payments are known so the subscriber can exclude the stock from their analysis during the unknown periods. If a stock traded between 1880 and 1920 and the description says Incomplete (1900-1920) you know that you can rely upon the dividend data from 1900 to 1920, but any dividends prior to 1900 are unknown.  The stock can be used for calculating a price index from 1880 to 1900, but not a return index. Unavailable means that we were unable to find any information on dividends for this stock.  The company probably paid a dividend, but we were unable to find any information on dividends that were paid.  This stock can be used for calculating a price index, but should be excluded from any total return calculations. Fixed Dividend refers to a company that was owned by another company and paid a fixed dividend to shareholders year after year. Railroads and utilities typically fell into this category. In this case, the common stock is similar to preferred shares and consequently, should be excluded from any common stock index calculations because the stock behaved more like a preferred share or a bond than a common stock. Non-Common Stocks are securities that did not allow shareholders to participate in the profits of the company. This included preferred shares, bonds, warrants, units, scrip and rights. These stocks should be excluded from any common stock indices.  


Global Financial Data faces issues that no other data provider must address because of the unique coverage that we provide.  Global stock markets have changed dramatically over the past four centuries, and data issues that might have seemed commonplace 200 years ago are no longer an issue.  For this reason, it is necessary that we educate our subscribers so they understand how corporate actions have changed over time and how they should treat dividends when the record of those dividends has been lost or is unavailable. Should you have any questions, we hope you will feel free to contact us.

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Our comprehensive financial databases span global markets offering data never compiled into an electronic format. We create and generate our own proprietary data series while we continue to investigate new sources and extend existing series whenever possible. GFD supports full data transparency to enable our users to verify financial data points, tracing them back to the original source documents. GFD is the original supplier of complete historical data.