Markets

Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.

How do you stop life insurers and pension funds from drowning in cash? Let them float on a thicker cushion of equity.

Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission did just that recently when it lowered the risk-based capital requirement for insurers. The change, combined with an upcoming tweak in pension funds' investment mandate, could help the local stock market attract between $25 billion and $35 billion over the next five years, according to Credit Suisse. That's a lot, considering that foreigners only bought about $34 billion of Taiwan equities in the nine years through 2015.  

Most of this money is likely to end up in dividend-paying stocks in order to earn a steady income. For a good reason: Around the world, more and more safe government debt yields zero or less. Even the compensation for taking a punt on risky corporate borrowers has slumped as funds have poured into emerging markets this year.

Risk On
Non-investment grade bond yields in Asia touched 6.27 percent last month, the least since May 2013
Source: JPMorgan

The hunt for yield among managers of large pools of money is taking various forms. South Korea's postal service, which oversees about 110 trillion won ($97 billion) of savings and insurance, plans to boost holdings of U.S. equities and bonds, Bloomberg News reported last week. The Singapore sovereign-wealth fund GIC, which manages workers' provident funds as well as part of the city's foreign-exchange reserves, is in talks to buy 7 percent of Vietcombank, its second foray in Vietnam this year, Reuters reported. The fund's 20-year real rate of return has dropped to 4 percent, from 4.9 percent last year. 

For most pension funds and insurers, though, dividend-paying stocks with manageable volatility might be the preferred strategy to buoy returns. No wonder, then, that a market-capitalization-weighted index of 44 stocks in developed Asian countries with a dividend yield of at least 3 percent and a beta of between 0.8 and 1   has been climbing since the Bank of Japan introduced negative rates in February. 

Money Talks
An index of 44 Asian stocks with high dividend yields has risen 21 percent since early February
Source: Bloomberg
5-year stock beta between 0.8 and 1.

The search for dividends could eventually make these stocks too expensive. For example, Australia's ASX (the stock exchange operator), Crown Resorts, Woolworths and Brambles are all trading 1.8 to 2.4 standard deviations higher than their five-year price-earnings ratios. 

Still, there are few alternative avenues for long-term funds. In developing Asian countries, where a low proportion of superannuation funds is currently invested in equities, the scope to do more is correspondingly greater.

In Thailand, only 17 percent of the top pension fund's assets are in stocks, compared with 61 percent in Hong Kong, according to OECD data. In India, where 10-year government bonds yield an enviable 7 percent, the government has allowed the biggest retirement-fund manager to invest between 5 percent and 15 percent of new assets in equities. Until recently, the fund wasn't allowed to buy stocks. 

The scramble for dividends in Asia is just getting started.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This year's foreign purchases of Taiwan stocks have exceeded $13 billion, with about half of the money coming in the current quarter. 

  2. Meaning their stock-price volatility ranges between 80 percent and 100 percent of the broader market.

To contact the author of this story:
Andy Mukherjee in Singapore at amukherjee@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Paul Sillitoe at psillitoe@bloomberg.net