Stock shares that have preferential rights to dividends or to amounts distributable on liquidation, or to both, ahead of common shareholders.
Preferred stock is given preference over common stock. Holders of preferred stock receive dividends at a fixed annual rate. The earnings of a corporation are applied to this payment before common stockholders receive dividends. If corporate earnings are insufficient for the fixed annual dividend, the preferred stock will absorb the total amount of earnings, and the common stockholders will be precluded from receiving a dividend. When corporate income exceeds the amount that is needed to pay preferred stockholders, the remainder is generally paid to common stockholders. In special situations, the remainder may be distributed pro rata to both classes of stock, in which case the preferred stock is said to "participate" with the common stock.
Preferred stock can be cumulative or noncumulative. If it is cumulative and if the fixed dividend remains unpaid, it becomes a debit upon the surplus earnings of succeeding years. Accumulated dividends must be paid in full before common stockholders can receive dividends. When preferred stock is noncumulative, its preference is extinguished by the failure of the corporation to have sufficient earnings to pay the fixed dividend in a given year.