Dividends come crashing down as Asian companies preserve cash

The uncertain duration and nature of the pandemic is now increasing pressure on firms globally to preserve cash. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Companies in Asia Pacific are slashing dividends at the fastest pace in more than a decade as the coronavirus pandemic upends business plans and clouds the outlook for earnings.

About 23 per cent of MSCI Asia Pacific Index members have scrapped or reduced payouts this year, according to data through July 20 compiled by Bloomberg. That's the most for such a period since 2009, when 41 per cent of index companies took such steps in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Firms listed in China and Hong Kong make up a majority of those scrapping dividends, followed by corporates in Japan and Australia.

Having slammed company profits around the world, the uncertain duration and nature of the pandemic is now increasing pressure on firms globally to preserve cash. Global payouts could contract by 15-35 per cent this year - dropping to US$933 billion (S$1.3 trillion) in the worst-case scenario, according to a Janus Henderson Investors study published in May.

"The lack of a mass market solution to alleviate the disruptions caused by the virus may lead to a continued impact on corporate performance and dividends alike," said Jingyi Pan, a market strategist at IG Asia in Singapore. North Asian markets such as China, South Korea and Taiwan will "continue to be favoured" on the back of better management of the pandemic, she added.

Earnings for companies on the MSCI Asia gauge tumbled by more than 60 per cent in the quarter ending March. A resurgence of the virus in places such as Australia and Hong Kong is threatening to delay the region's economic recovery.

The consumer discretionary and materials sectors in Asia are seeing the highest instances of scrapped payouts, with companies including Nissan Motor, Wanda Film Holding, and Japan Airlines having suspended dividends.

Still, the region has fared better than Europe where the central bank has asked banks to defer dividend payments. That's contributed to about half of the Stoxx Europe 600 Index's members either scrapping or reducing their payouts. Meanwhile, the US has seen only 63 of the S&P 500 Index constituents announce such moves.

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