– The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Corporate America is betting cash — in the form of higher dividend payouts — that the economy is rebounding.

Three major U.S. companies — Caterpillar Inc., Target Corp. and Viacom Inc. — hiked their dividends Wednesday, signaling a growing optimism about the path of the global economy. Medical device maker C.R. Bard Inc. also raised its dividend.

So far this year, that means 135 companies have raised, initiated or reinstated dividends, while only two companies have cut them, according to Standard & Poor’s. The net effect is a $10.4 billion increase in dividend payouts for the year.

contrast, dividend payouts last year dropped by a record $39.8 billion, or 21 percent, overall. The net decrease was the result of 79 dividend increases and 63 decreases.

Dividends are cash that companies pay to shareholders on a quarterly basis. Promising a higher regular payout means a company is confident about its future earning potential.

In another sign of a brightening outlook, more companies are also announcing stock buyback programs. So far this year, 310 companies have done so, compared with a total of 253 over the same time period last year. Nearly 700 companies announced buyback programs over the same period in 2008, before the credit market froze later that year according to Dealogic.

Stock buyback programs indicate companies have enough cash to take their shares off the market, which increases the value of the remaining shares. Buybacks can also reduce the possibility of takeover threats.

Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment, said it was raising its quarterly dividend by 5 percent to 44 cents. The hike comes as demand continues to grow for heavy equipment amid a global economic recovery.

Caterpiller machinery is used so widely in the world that its results are seen as a bellwether of the broader economy.

In April, the company posted first-quarter net income of $233 million, reversing its year-ago loss.

Viacom’s dividend of 15 cents per Class A and B common share declared Wednesday is the company’s first. The entertainment conglomerate, which owns MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures, also said it plans to resume a stock repurchase program that was suspended during the financial crisis.

Discount retailer Target raised its quarterly dividend to 25 cents per share, up 45 percent from 17 cents previously.

Three other companies raised dividends on Tuesday: liquor company Brown-Forman Corp., engineering and construction company KBR Inc. and agribusiness company Bunge Ltd.

And more will surely follow later this year, said Howard Silverblatt, an S&P analyst. Many companies are likely waiting to have a couple of quarters of solid performance behind them before raising their dividends, he said. That should result in a surge of dividend hikes in the fourth quarter, he said.

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