High-Dividend Stocks in Asia? You Bet

04/13/2010 9:24 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

I know what you're thinking, because I used to think the same thing. But companies there are showing good returns, though it may be hard to figure out how and when.

High dividend yields are showing up in some unexpected places.

If you think anything like I did just a scant few months ago, you wouldn't dream of looking to Asian stocks for high dividend yields. Most likely, you think of them like I did, resembling the technology sector—lots of growth, but no yield.

Well, I was wrong. And if you still think like I did, you're missing an increasingly important source of high dividend yields. (By the way, technology stocks pay dividends these days, too. Check out Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) to see what I mean.)

Here's the data from the Matthews Asia Dividend Fund (NYSE: MAPIX) that opened my eyes. "Based on consensus estimates, the projected dividend yield for 2010 of the MSCI AC Asia Pacific Index of 2.5% exceeds the 2.0% expected of the MSCI US Index," the fund's managers wrote in their December 31 report. In other words, Asian stocks out-yield their US counterparts.

And the Asian yield story looks like it has a way to run. In China, for example, total dividend payments grew to $73 billion in 2008 from just $8 billion in 1998, according to the December 31 report from the Matthews China Dividend Fund (NYSE: MCDFX). And $57 billion of the $73 billion in dividends paid out in 2008 came from companies that went public after 1998. Even recently, public companies in China, it seems from the data, are paying good dividends.

Available, Yes. But Reliable?

Why haven't dividend investors stocked up on these higher Asia yields?

A couple of reasons, I think.

First, investors are fixated on China and other Asian economies as growth stories. We're focused on buying growth of 20%, 30%, 40% or more a year. Why bother looking at dividends?

Second, it's awfully hard to figure out many of these dividend stories. Information on the companies is hard to get; the corporate structures are often so convoluted that it's difficult to tell what the information means once you get it; and Asian companies often pay out dividends on schedules and in formats that seem very, well, foreign to developed-market investors, who are used to regular and regularly announced quarterly dividend payments.

There's good reason that the Matthews Asia Funds have launched Asia (2006) and China (2009) dividend funds recently. A professional manager with the ability to buy and sell on local markets that are effectively closed to individual investors more than earns his keep in this part of the global stock market.

But that doesn't mean you can't add some Asian dividend stocks to your income portfolio—either instead of buying a mutual fund or in addition to owning fund shares—as a way to overweight a particular Asian country or sector in your dividend portfolio.

As I wrote in my April 8 column, it's getting harder and harder to find a stock that pays a decent dividend, at least if you look in the usual places. So look in the unusual places. Every one of them.

I'm going to tell you about three Asian dividend stocks. Two are intriguing, but ultimately frustrating examples of why it's so hard to figure out what to buy in this sector. The third, I think, is just transparent enough to add to Jim's Watch List. I think the global equity markets are swinging back from hope to fear. That means we'll get a chance to add this stock to one of my portfolios at a lower price not too many weeks down the road.

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Three to Watch

My first Asian dividend stock is Singapore's Keppel Corporation Limited (OTC: KPELY). The company's biggest business is building offshore oil rigs. So far in 2010, the company has announced $1.65 billion in orders that include a wellhead platform for Brazilian oil company Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) and a jackup rig for Saudi Aramco.

Keppel's infrastructure and property segments will account for an estimated 26% and 14% of revenue, respectively, in 2010, according to OCBC Investment Research. Keppel's infrastructure business includes a fast-growing cooling systems maker with contracts in China, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom. A wholly owned subsidiary, Keppel Integrated Engineering, is targeting what it calls the green infrastructure business with assets that include two waste-to-energy incinerator plants and a water processing plant.

Then there's the property business. The company is building a development called Reflections at Keppel Bay, and another, Resorts World, at Sentosa, a resort island in Singapore. There's also the Marina Bay Financial Center project, which is just nearing completion of phase one.

All this is complex enough, but things really get too complicated for me when it comes to figuring dividends. In 2008, according to the Matthews Asia Funds, Keppel was among the most generous payers of dividends in Singapore, giving out $385 million. The company hadn't yet set a dividend payout for 2009 before announcing this wrinkle: Keppel Integrated Engineering is contributing much of its environmental assets to a trust called K-Green Trust, which will list in Singapore. The company will pay a "dividend in specie" of approximately 50.5% of the total number of trust units held directly by Keppel. This dividend will be distributed to shareholders.

Any idea what that dividend is worth? I'd love to be able to figure it out, but from here, I can't tell. And it's hard for me to recommend a dividend stock when I can't tell what the dividend is. (I'll keep working on it, though.)

On to the second example: Minth Group (OTC: MNTHF). The company manufactures and supplies trim and decorative parts to domestic and international auto companies that build cars in China. China is now the largest auto market in the world, and demand will grow there by 15% a year over the next three years, according to Citic Securities. In this growing market, Minth shows net profit margins of 20%. The company pays a dividend yield of 2.3% and should be able to up that without showing any strain.

Oh, and did I mention that while the average auto stock traded in Hong Kong at a price-earnings-to-growth (PEG) ratio of 1.6, Minth Group trades at a PEG ratio of just 0.9? (Growth investors commonly call any growth stock with a PEG ratio of 1 or less reasonably priced.)

So why not snap up the shares—if not for my Dividend Income Portfolio then for Jubak's Picks? Well, in Hong Kong, Minth is a very liquid stock, trading 105 million shares daily, on average. In the United States, it's an over-the-counter (OTC) stock priced at just $1.70 a share. And as for volume, it doesn't even show up on MSN Money. Not exactly the kind of liquidity that makes me feel like I'd be able to sell if I needed to. And I'd sure be sorry about the volatility of the shares if someone else decided to sell.

Example three? Jiangsu Expressway Company (OTC: JEXYY) isn't exactly liquid, but at least it does trade in the United States as a sponsored ADR (meaning a bank is committed, however strongly or weakly, to making a market in the shares). Daily average volume is just 1,467, but at least the stock's volume does register. And at $18.87 a share, it's not exactly a penny stock.

The company is certainly easier to understand than Keppel, and the business model is a familiar one to developed-market investors.

The company builds, buys, and operates toll bridges and toll roads in China, including a section of the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway and other toll highways within Jiangsu province. It also develops highway-related services, such as repair shops, gas stations, motels, and restaurants.

Earnings grew 29% in 2009 and will grow 12% annually through 2011, according to projections by DBS Group. Revenue climbed 9% in 2009, according to Daiwa Capital Markets. The stock pays a dividend of 6%.

So why put it on my watch list instead of buying it now?

First, the stock is generating a spate of short-term enthusiasm because of May's big Shanghai trade expo. The feeling is that the event will generate lots of traffic that will turn into toll revenue for the expressway. I hate to buy into this kind of short-term thinking—and the elevated price that goes with it. There's almost always a reaction that sends the stock price back down after the event is over.

Second, the company has started to move into the property market. I think that exposes the stock to a price shock if the Beijing government moves to rein in the money supply to control growth and inflation. I think that action is likely over the next two to three months.

In short, I'd like to own this one once some of the short-term risk is out of the stock price. But for right now, I'm adding it to my watch list.

At the time of publication, Jim Jubak did not own or control shares of companies mentioned in this column.

Jim Jubak has been writing "Jubak's Journal" and tracking the performance of his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio since 1997 on MSN Money. He is the author of a new book, The Jubak Picks, and he writes the Jubak Picks blog. He is also the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com.

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