US stocks these days are offering much lower yields than the rest of the world. For example, the S&P 500 yields less than 2% while UK stock indices are yielding more than that. Given the fact that foreign companies are paying more generous dividends than US ones, should dividend investors venture abroad?
Before investors decide to invest in foreign stocks, they need to understand the risks and peculiar characteristics of foreign dividend paying stocks.
In general, most foreign dividend paying companies pay fluctuating dividends each year. Foreign companies are quick to cut dividends if earnings fall even by a small amount, since they target a particular dividend payout ratio, rather than a particular level of dividend payments. US investors who are used to the stability of dividend payments that most American firms exhibit might be disappointed by this feature. Fluctuating dividends make it particularly difficult to live off your investments, and as a result it is best that these companies are avoided.
Adding to the injury, most foreign companies tend to distribute cash to shareholders once or twice per year at best. Many multinationals such as Nestle (OTCPK:NSRGY) for example pay distributions once per year. As a result, investors who like to reinvest dividends have only one instance/year to compound their profits. As a dividend investor, I have found that having the ability to reinvest the same annual dividend in four quarterly installments allows for faster compounding than having the dividend compound just once per year. For the companies that pay dividends twice annually, they tend to split distributions into interim and final payments. The interim payments typically represent 40% of the total annual dividend, while the final payment represents 60% of the total annual dividend. As a result, many US services such as Yahoo Finance, routinely miscalculate the dividend yields of companies such as UK-based company Diageo (NYSE:DEO) or Vodafone (NASDAQ:VOD).
Another factor to consider before purchasing foreign shares is taxes. Many countries such as Canada, France, Switzerland and Netherlands, to name a few, impose taxes on dividends paid out to US investors. These taxes are typically around 15% for Canadian stocks held by US investors, for example. While US investors can claim a credit for any taxes withheld at a foreign source in taxable accounts, they cannot do that in tax-deferred ones such as ROTH IRAs. In addition, some foreign companies such as Unilever have dual class shares with similar rights that trade both in London and Amsterdam. Purchasing the Netherlands-based ADRs for Unilever N.V. (NYSE:UN) could lead to tax withholdings, whereas purchasing the United Kingdom based ADRs for Unilever PLC (NYSE:UL) could pose no such problems. US dividend taxes would still be due of course, but there is less paperwork trying to claim foreign taxes withheld on dividends.
Another factor to consider includes transaction costs. Many US investors tend to purchase American Depositary Receipts (ADRs) on foreign listed shares. As a result, they end up paying US capital gains taxes and US commissions. If you dare venture abroad however, you would have to deal with finding the right broker, paying taxes abroad and paying commissions which are probably much higher than the ones in the US.
In general, many foreign companies also report results under IFRS, which is a different accounting standard than US GAAP. Other factors to consider include the fact that many foreign companies listed in the US are typically global businesses, and therefore would trade similarly with their US competitors. In other words, during the financial crisis of 2007 - 2009, many stocks lost almost half of their values. As a result, venturing out abroad might not have delivered the diversification benefits that international investing is supposed to deliver. However, by expanding the timeframe to look at performance of foreign shares before and after the crisis, one could note a few differences. Because of the global nature of business these days, I avoid international over diversification by purchasing shares of US based multinationals.
There are a few lists with dividend growth stocks which could aid investors in their search for dividend-paying companies with dependable and rising distributions. These include the international dividend achievers index, which lists companies traded in the US, which have boosted distributions for at least 5 years in a row. Another interesting benchmark is the Europe Dividend Aristocrats index, which lists European companies which have raised distributions for more than 10 years in a row.
Some foreign companies that fit in this criteria include:
Diageo, which produces, distills, brews, bottles, packages and distributes spirits, beer, wine and ready to drink beverages. The company has managed to increase dividends for at least 15 years in a row. Currently, the stock is selling for 19.70 times forward earnings and yields 2.70%.
Nestle, which provides nutrition, health and wellness products worldwide. The company has managed to increase dividends for 18 years in a row. Currently, the stock is selling for 18.60 times forward earnings and yields 3.10%.
Novartis (NYSE:NVS), which is a multinational company specializing in the research, development, manufacturing and marketing of a range of healthcare products led by pharmaceuticals. The company has managed to increase dividends for 17 years in a row. Currently, the stock is selling for 17.50 times forward earnings and yields 3%.
Unilever, which is a consumer goods company operating in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Europe and the Americas. The company has managed to increase dividends for at least 19 years in a row. Currently, the stock is selling for 20.20 times forward earnings and yields 3.50%.
BHP Billiton (NYSE:BBL), which operates as a diversified natural resources company worldwide. The company has managed to increase dividends 15 years in a row. Currently, the stock is selling for 16.80 times forward earnings and yields 3.50%.
Those companies are a little pricey today, but are good long-term holdings for long-term investors. If prices decrease from here, it would be nice to have these names on a watchlist.
Disclosure: The author is long DEO, VOD, UL, NSRGY. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Editor's Note: This article discusses one or more securities that do not trade on a major U.S. exchange. Please be aware of the risks associated with these stocks.