By Patturaja Murugaboopathy
(Reuters) - Shares of cash-rich firms in Asia have weathered this year's sell-off in much better shape than key stock indexes, a Reuters analysis showed, reinforcing views that investments in companies with strong finances safeguard returns during market crises.
An analysis of top 200 Asian firms based on their cash and short-term investments showed they outperformed the broader MSCI Asia-ex-Japan index <.MIAPJ0000PUS> during the market crashes in 2008, 2013 and 2015.
So far in 2018, their shares have fallen just 5 percent on average, compared with the MSCI Asia-ex-Japan index's fall of 14.5 percent.
(Asia's cash rich firms, https://tmsnrt.rs/2PzDlNH)
With U.S. interest rates slowly but steadily rising, companies with higher debt burdens are likely to face more pressure and hence investments in cash-rich firms could be safer bets, analysts said.
"In times like this, I think the focus of investors moves from the profit and loss account towards the balance sheet....If you are an investor and you are looking for safety in markets, ultimately the one metric that does not change despite market volatility is the absolute cash balances of companies," said Jim McCafferty, head of Asia-ex-Japan equity research at Nomura.
He said South Korea, China and Japan appear to be the safer markets in terms of cash balances in Asia.
Traditionally, Asian companies prefer to sit on huge cash piles, keeping them idle, but recently the culture has started to change due to government's efforts and corporate governance reforms to enhance shareholder returns.
A Reuters analysis of Asian companies with market capitalisation of at least $1 billion showed their total dividends rose to $203.9 billion in the first three quarters of this year, the highest in at least 10 years.
Refinitiv data showed Asian firms have announced $10 billion worth of share buybacks so far this year, the highest since 2012.
"We may see some of those improvements in the return on equity (through dividends and share buybacks) that we have seen in the U.S equity market in the last 5 years," said Paul Kitney, chief equity strategist at Daiwa Securities in Hong Kong.
"In Japan, we have seen efforts over recent years, promoting corporate governance, including increasing share buybacks, dividends through government policies."
Some companies are also expected to cut their expansion plans due to slowing global demand and divert their cash to improve shareholder returns.
“Given the uncertainty arising from U.S-China trade tensions, we have observed that corporates in Asia are deferring or are more cautious on capital expenditure,” said Colin Ng, Head of Asia (ex-Japan) Equities at UOB Asset Management.
Refinitiv data showed Asia's companies' capex growth is expected to fall 2 percent in the next 12 months, at the same time dividends are to grow by 6.5 percent.
"The downward capex intensity trend suggests likely cash redirection into shareholder returns," said HSBC analysts in a note.
(Reporting By Patturaja Murugaboopathy;Additional Reporting by Daniel Leussink in TOKYO and Gaurav Dogra in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill)