Companies offer record payouts, Russian firms lag

Global companies paid out $228.4 billion in dividends to their investors in the first quarter this year – up 31 percent from the same time last year, but Russian company dividends more than halved, according to new data.

While Russia represents just 2 percent of the global annual total, its first quarter dividends more than halved year-on-year, as military tensions gave way to a surge in capital outflows, the research from Henderson Global Investors shows.

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Moscow City Business District
Andrey Rudakov I Bloomberg via Getty Images
Moscow City Business District

The boom in first-quarter payouts was driven by Vodafone's bumper special dividend, worth $26 billion in total, following the sale of its stake in Verizon.

With special dividends stripped out, the growth rate in global dividends the first three months of the year was up 12 percent compared to the same period last year, the fastest since the fourth quarter of 2012.

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The Vodafone dividend was the largest single cash dividend in corporate history and accounted for almost half of the growth seen in dividend payouts. For the full year the firm is expected to distribute a "staggering" $35 billion -- almost three times as much as the next largest payer, oil firm Shell.

But tensions between Russia and the West and a weak rouble weighed on Russian firms.

"Russia is worth a special mention," said head of global equities at Henderson Global Investors, Matt Beesley.

"First-quarter dividends more than halved year-on-year, reflecting the unpredictable nature of distributions from companies there," said Beesley.

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"What is more, a number of Russian companies had delayed dividend announcements at the time of writing, while Sberbank had cut its preference dividend," he said.

Emerging markets (EM) dividends are less sustainable compared to their developed market (DM) counterparts more generally, rising by just 7 percent in the first quarter to $13.7 billion.

"DM dividends are a lot more sustainable then EM dividends, we reckon around three times more sustainable. This is important because while focusing on EM for growth, if you are looking at EM for dividend income you need to mind your eye a little bit," Beesley told CNBC.

But emerging market income manager at JPMorgan, Omar Negyal, said companies in the region are increasingly recognizing the benefits of returning capital to shareholders, and expects dividends to continue to grow significantly.

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"Over the next five years, we expect dividend growth in emerging markets to average 12 percent a year. Emerging markets have not only strongly outperformed the U.K., but higher yielding EM stocks have consistently beaten the wider EM asset class over the last 15 years," he said.

Henderson said growth from the U.S. was "rapid" in the first quarter and continues to show strong momentum for the rest of the year.

Excluding the Vodafone payout and other special dividends, the U.K. total rose 14.8 percent over the same period, delivering a strong a performance for U.S. dollar-based investors due to the 9.5 percent gains seen in sterling.