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Chinese Companies Tend to Pay Dividends Randomly

August 08, 2016

Why stock dividends get the cold shoulder from China investors

Companies, notoriously stingy with cash dividends, have become somewhat more generous in recent years, but payouts to shareholders are still far from enough to compensate investors for losses in a volatile market.

About 80 percent of China’s 300 largest listed companies tracked by the CSI300 Index paid a fraction of their 2015 earnings out as cash dividends to shareholders, according to data calculated by Shanghai Daily.

That proportion compares with 90 percent in 2014, 89 percent in 2013, 70 percent in 2010 and 40 percent 10 years ago.

“Dividend payments in the A-share market are on an uptrend as corporate liquidity improves and regulators try to encourage bigger payouts,” said Qiu Dongrong, a fund manager at HSBC Jintrust Fund Management Co.

Regulators have unveiled a slew of measures to try to encourage listed companies to give back more to shareholders in the form of dividends. The idea is to nurture long-term investing over short-term speculation.

In 2013, the Shanghai Stock Exchange required companies offering dividends of less than 30 percent of net profit to submit a “please explain.” It also gives priority in financing to firms offering dividends of 50 percent or more of net earnings.

“Companies with stable earnings and enough liquidity, such as electricity companies, home appliance firms and automobile makers, are more willing to pay cash dividends,” Qiu said.

He said his fund tends to pay special attention to stocks with stable and sustainable dividend payouts, which can be a sign of the long-term profitability of a company.

Retail investors seem mixed in their opinions.

“I am not investing for the dividends,” said Dave Wu, a 37-year-old procurement officer at a Shanghai-based electronics firm. “Only a small number of companies have a dividend yield higher than the returns on wealth management products. If I care about dividends, I would rather invest in these safer assets.”

Data from Wind Information Co shows that 98 listed companies had an average dividend yield of more than 3 percent in the 2012-2014 period and only 31 companies had an average dividend yield of more than 5 percent.

Some investors even believe that dividend payments are a form of trickery.

Qu Qiuming, a security guard in a residential community who has been trading A shares for more than 10 years, said dividend payments bring him losses rather than benefits.

“I received 500 yuan (US$75) in dividends from a Shanghai-listed company in June, but before that, the value of the stock decreased by exactly the same amount on an ex-dividend basis,” Qu said, “Not to mention that I have to pay tax on dividend income.”

Loss or gain

Qu was referring to the fact that the price of a stock automatically drops by the amount of the dividend on the ex-dividend date because the net asset value of the stock is reduced by the exact amount of the dividend.

For example, a company trading at 10 yuan per share decides to issue a dividend payment of 1 yuan per share. Then its share price will automatically adjust down to 9 yuan per share on the ex-dividend date. After the dividend is paid, an investor who has 1,000 yuan invested in the company will have 900 yuan invested in the company and 100 yuan in cash.

“I don’t understand the importance of dividends because they don’t increase my total wealth and they cost me more in taxes,” Qu added. “I guess only big shareholders who are restricted in selling stocks can benefit from dividends.”

Analysts said some investors may misunderstand the value of cash dividends because they think the decline in the stock price after the payout changes the value of a company in the long term.

“The value of a stock should be considered as its potential to create future cash flow for investors, through either cash dividends or the rise of the stock price,” said Jiang Zhan, a professor at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“Chinese retail investors tend to expect high returns from the stock market and prefer to make quick profits through the fluctuation of stock prices,” Jiang said.

Skeptic investors

Higher taxes on cash dividends than on capital gains also contribute to investor skepticism, said the professor.

In an effort to encourage long-term investment, China last year removed the income tax on dividends for investors who hold stocks for more than a year, and halved the tax on dividends for those holding shares between one month and one year. Investors who hold shares for less than a month will have to pay the full rate of 20 percent.

Compared with cash dividends, Chinese investors seem to prefer dividends paid out in additional shares.

“The custom of investing in companies with high stock dividends is unique to the A-share market,” Xun Yugen, an analyst with Haitong Securities, said in a report.

In China, companies paying high stock dividends are quite popular.

Between January and April, companies that paid high stock dividend on 2015 earnings delivered an excess return of 16 percent above the return for the CSI 300 stocks, according to the brokerage.

“High” stock dividend usually refers to a more than 100 percent stock dividend. For example, if there are 1 billion shares in a company trading at 10 yuan per share, a 100 percent stock dividend payment would increase the total stock volume to 2 billion while reducing the price per share to 5 yuan.

“Compared with cash dividends, I think stock dividends should be called ‘number tricks’ because they really bring nothing to shareholders,” said Qian Qimin, analyst with Shenwan Hongyuan Securities. “It’s like cutting a pie into two pieces.”

He added, “The main reason why investors are passionate about high stock dividends is that they bring down stock prices and leave more room for speculation.”

Tu Jun, an analyst with Shanghai Securities, said investor discontent with cash dividends stems mainly from the fact that the amount of cash dividends usually is inconspicuous compared with the losses investors have suffered from China’s volatile market.

Chinese listed companies paid a total of 745.5 billion yuan of 2015 earnings in cash dividends to investors. That was a drop in the bucket compared with nearly 25 trillion yuan of market value wiped from the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchange since mid-June last year.

There is still room for Chinese-listed companies to improve their dividend payment, analysts said.

The dividend payout ratio — dividends versus total net income of listed companies — has been standing at around 30 percent for the past five years, compared with about 50 percent in developed markets overseas.

“In markets such the US, companies are very cautious about dividend policies, which can indicate quality of the firms,” said Jiang at the Advanced Institute of Finance. “Dividend distribution is a sticky decision for US-listed companies because mangers are cautious about initiating dividend payments and even more cautious about cutting them when the performance of companies deteriorates.”

She added, “By contrast, Chinese companies tend to pay dividends randomly because investors don’t really seem to care much about them.”


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