A man walks past a display of global stock indices (green for losses) in Tokyo. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/ AFP
A man walks past a display of global stock indices (green for losses) in Tokyo. Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/ AFP

Long sought-after for their upside potential, Asia Pacific stocks now also boast the world’s fastest underlying dividend growth as well, according to a report by UK-based asset manager Janus Henderson.

The underlying growth rate in first quarter 2017 dividends from Asia Pacific tallied 14.6%, exceeding the global average of 5.4%. The underlying classification provides an apples-to-apples comparison between regions by adjusting for factors including currency exchange and one-off payouts. Japan’s underlying growth rate was just 3.2%, although the first quarter there is traditionally the weakest period for dividends, according to the report.

“2017 has started on a really encouraging note for income investors,” said Alex Crooke, head of global equity income at Janus Henderson. “At the moment the uptick is taking place more quickly than we anticipated, and is stronger too, so we are slightly revising up our forecast for the year, despite the big drop in special dividends in Q1.”

Janus Henderson raised its projection for global underlying dividend growth in 2017 from 3.2% in January to 3.9%. It forecasts total dividends this year will amount to almost US$1.2 trillion globally.

Despite the strong growth rate in Asia Pacific, the majority of dividend payouts are still issued by companies based in Europe and North America. More than four out of every five dollars paid out in the first quarter came from these regions alone, according to Janus Henderson (see chart below).

Income investors have traditionally ignored Asia Pacific equities because the legacy of state-owned and family-run businesses created an environment of cash-rich companies that hoarded proceeds for privileged inner circles. The tide has started to turn in recent years, however, as foreign investment increases and governments have advocated for more shareholder friendly regulations.

In 2014, Japanese exchange operators created the JPX-Nikkei Index 400 to provide investors with a benchmark that tracks companies meeting global standards in corporate governance and efficient use of capital. The following year, South Korea enacted a corporate income tax law that penalized companies for excessive earnings accumulation.

Asia’s blue-chip companies have taken the lead in ushering in the new environment and hiking dividends. In Hong Kong, Tencent increased its payout by 29.8% to 61 HK cents per share for the year ended December 2016 from the previous year, while AIA upped its total dividend by 22.8% to 85.7 HK cents  per share (11 US cents).

Elsewhere, Samsung Electronics raised dividends for common shares by more than a third for the fiscal year 2016 from the previous period to 28,500 KRW per share (US$24.62). And Taiwan’s largest company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, will decide at its general meeting this week whether to raise dividends a proposed 16.7% to NT$7 per share (23 US cents).

The world’s largest dividend payer in the first quarter was Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, according to Janus Henderson. From Asia Pacific, Coal India ranks 19th and Australia’s BHB Billiton comes in at 20th.

The Janus Henderson study analyzes dividends issued by the world’s 1,200 largest companies by market capitalization. It determines a global total by adding estimated average payouts for the companies outside that subset over the large cap dividends across a five-year period.

Dividend-paying equities offer a viable alternative to income investors wary of loading up on fixed income positions in the current rising interest rate environment. As of June 6, the CME Group forecast a 95.8% chance that the US central bank’s monetary policy setting committee will increase the country’s key interest rate this month to a range between 1% and 1.25%. The benchmark rate last increased in March for the second time in a span of three months.

J.P. Morgan Asset Management said in a report last month that income investors should adopt a multi-asset portfolio approach that includes dividend-paying equities.

“In an environment of potentially higher growth and continued upward pressure on interest rates, income investors should know which levers they can pull to strike the right balance between risk and return,” portfolio managers including Michael Schoenhaut wrote.

“Focusing on credit within fixed income alone will not eliminate the negative impact of rising rates.”