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Better Governance, Rising Middle Class Spur Emerging Market Dividends

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Apple’s triumphant announcement last week that it has crossed the $700 billion market capitalization mark bodes well for companies such as Foxconn Technology Group, a Taiwanese multinational and manufacturer of components for Apple and other global electronic companies.

Foxconn, which makes, among others, parts for the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 plus, has reportedly been struggling to keep up with their production. Over the years, it has also received much negative press about the treatment of its workers. Nevertheless, the strength of the demand for the Apple products, coupled with Apple’s success, is a huge positive for investors in companies like Foxconn and underscores the increased importance and strength of emerging market companies, particularly in Asia, and the prospect for greater dividends going forward.

Apple’s success, is a huge positive for investors in companies like Foxconn and underscores the increased importance and strength of emerging market companies, particularly in Asia, and the prospect for greater dividends going forward.

According to a recent study on global dividends by Henderson Global Investors, the Asia-Pacific region and Taiwan and China in particular are leading the way when it comes to dividend increases. China, in fact, accounted for almost half of the total emerging market dividend growth in 2014, with a 14% increase for this year, according to Henderson’s Global Equity Team.

“We expect to see strong dividend growth out of China, as while growth is slowing, it is still predicted to be above 6%,” a member of the team wrote in an email. “In China, measures are being taken to improve corporate governance and credibility, and this should translate into dividend increases.”

Within the emerging markets, improved corporate governance has been one of the most important factors and greatest contributors to increased dividends, according to Peter Kohli, CEO of DMS Funds. In countries like India, Indonesia and The Philippines, there’s been a marked improvement in governance standards, Kohli said, and this has translated to better corporate performance and higher dividends.

Vietnam is also working in this area and so is China.

But governance aside, Kohli also believes that the growing middle class in many emerging market nations has a keen role to play in increased corporate dividends.

“The obvious example is India, where we recently bought a bank stock at a premium,” he said. “This was unheard of in India but today, because of better governance standards and better regulation, first of all, and then because of a middle class of 400 million with money to spend, which is driving everything, companies are clearly doing better and dividends are clearly rising. “

Although the Henderson reports expects dividends to continue growing in 2015 and companies in emerging markets to be among the stronger players, there are nevertheless certain challenges to dividend increases.

For one, a number of emerging market countries have heavy exposure to commodities – iron ore, oil and so on — and this is putting downward pressure on earnings, said Henderon’s Global Equity Team member. Outside of commodities growth has also slowed for other reasons: In Brazil, for example, high inflation leading to high interest rates has squeezed growth and sanctions have been imposed on Russia. And for overseas investors downward pressure on currencies has also meant that dividends have struggled to grow in U.S. dollar terms, the team member said.

Some investors are also wary about the progress of corporate governance, and particularly in the case of China, don’t quite consider it a fait accompli.

According to Matthews Asia strategist Andy Rothman, who wrote a recent piece on the topic, China’s rulers have not dealt properly with the most important long-term obstacle to the country’s growth: The rule of law. Without rule of law, Chinese people have seen rapid income growth. But the status quo may not be acceptable to a society that enjoys greater wealth and personal freedom, Rothman said, and though failure to reform legal and governance systems does not present a short-term risk for investors, it could hinder growth prospects over the long-term.

China is also undoubtedly dealing with significant unproductive capacity expansion, the Henderson Global Equity team member said, whether that’s in steel mills, property, or in local government spending on infrastructure projects.

On the positive side, though, the tightening measures that China put in place to curb inflation are starting to have an impact and the authorities have recently been making more moves towards monetary easing, as evidenced by surprise interest rate cut a few days ago. This should help both on the macro level and also benefit the corporate sector.


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