IN FOCUS6-8 min read

The compelling case for dividend investing in Asia

Whatever the economic backdrop, dividends are key when investing in Asia. We look at the data that shows why.

16/02/2023
Photo of Singapore

Authors

King Fuei Lee
Co-Head of Asian Equity Alternative Investments

When will the US Federal Reserve (Fed) be done with its rate hikes? Does the spectre of recession push global central banks into monetary loosening mode soon?

As investors grapple with the future direction of travel of global interest rates, it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves that regardless of where interest rates go, a core investment truth remains: dividends are an important part of equity investing in Asia.

Dividend returns account for majority of total return in Asia

It is no secret that stock markets are generally obsessed with share price appreciation. As tales of “multi-baggers” abound in Asia, many an investor has been seen chasing pipe dreams. Yet when one takes a step back and decomposes the region’s equity performances, in reality almost three-quarters of Asia’s long-run equity returns have historically come from dividends.

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Consider the experiences of Singapore and Korea. Both countries were known for their rapid economic growth rates in the 1990s which propelled their economies from agrarian societies in the 1960s into the industrialised nations that they are today. Both their stock markets have also delivered almost identical price returns over the last 35 years. And yet this is where the similarities end.

Abhorring the notion of paying dividends, Korean corporates have largely kept their payout ratios unchanged over the last two decades even as their Singaporean counterparts consistently raised theirs. This has seen companies from the Lion City deliver a whopping 690% dividend return to their investors over 1988-2022, a figure that easily dwarfs the 345% from the Land of the Morning Calm.

For investors hoping to take a leaf out of the history books, focusing on dividends is clearly key.

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Higher dividends = higher earnings growth

Doubters, however, balk at this notion. Why bother with boring dividends in a vibrant place like Asia, they ask? After all, only companies which have run out of growth opportunities pay dividends. Aren’t dividend-paying companies really just dull, slow-growing companies?

Contrary to this belief, companies that pay high dividends are neither low-growth nor boring. Because corporate managers have better information about their future prospects and loathe cutting dividends, they often only pay high dividends if they are confident that their future earnings are robust enough to sustain the payout. This explains why companies that pay high dividends today are routinely also the ones registering the fastest earnings growth tomorrow.

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Taiwanese chip foundry giant TSMC is a prime example. A linchpin in the global semiconductor space, the company’s earnings per share has increased sixfold over the last decade and a half. Yet unlike its peers who have used their capital expenditure needs as excuses not to pay their shareholders, the company largely ensured that its dividend payment profile was matching that of its anticipated future profits. As a result, the firm’s annual dividend payouts have largely moved in lockstep with its subsequent five-years earnings growth.

Academics call this phenomenon the “dividend-signalling effect”. As such, for investors seeking to benefit from the Asian economic growth story, focusing on high payout companies is definitely key.

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Higher dividends = better corporate governance

In a region riddled with corporate governance pitfalls, focusing on dividends has the added benefit of keeping investors away from potential disasters. This is because companies reduce the temptation to waste money on value-destroying investments when they return excess cash to shareholders. They also subject themselves to more stringent levels of stakeholder scrutiny when they next tap the markets for funds.

Dividends can only be paid out of real earnings and real cash flows. As a result, Asian companies that pay high dividends are frequently also those with high corporate governance standards.

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Indeed, when the Satyam Computer Services scandal first broke in 2009, there was much shock and consternation. The company was one of India's leading IT services providers at that time and a market darling who, at its peak, employed more than 50,000 employees and operated in more than 60 countries.

Markets were therefore left shell-shocked when its founder Ramalinga Raju suddenly resigned and confessed to having manipulated its accounts to the tune of Rs 7000 crores (that is, 70,000,000,000 rupees) over the previous decade.

Many investors were caught by the debacle. Yet, a close inspection of the company's dividend policy might have revealed that something was amiss. After all, for a firm that purported to have compounded its earnings by double-digits over the last decade and sat on US$1 billion worth of cash on its balance sheet, its dividend payout looked remarkably paltry.

It is signalling that either the earnings were not real, or that management did not care about sharing its earnings with its minority shareholders. None of that is good for shareholders. Any investor focused on dividends would have have done well avoiding this company.

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Dividend stocks appeal to older investors

What is of note is that our older clients are also increasingly demanding more dividends from their investments. This is perhaps not surprising.

Behavioural economists Hersh Shefrin and Richard Thaler have long theorised that individuals do not see all money equally. Instead they mentally break down their wealth into three separate, non-fungible baskets, namely current income, current assets and future income. For them, the propensity to spend out of current income is always the greatest while the temptation to do the same out of future income is the least. And because dividends are viewed as current income, people are happy to spend them. Capital gains, on the other hand, are largely viewed as future income and “jam tomorrow”. The tendency to spend out of them is therefore much lower.

For older customers facing retirement, this distinction is important because they will increasingly prefer to receive dividends from their stocks in order to fund their consumption. This should also see them rotating more into stocks paying high dividends. In a world that is rapidly ageing, the demand for dividends from the growing cohorts of retirees and soon-to-retire will underpin demand for dividend payers, making these stocks attractive investments on a longer-term basis.

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Given how big a component of long-term equity returns dividends have historically been, and knowing how strong their demand from the ageing population will be, any investor who is looking for fast-growing companies with strong corporate governance in Asia will do well to pay heed to them.

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Authors

King Fuei Lee
Co-Head of Asian Equity Alternative Investments

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