Investors are always told to diversify. Diversification is the tool to protect investors from the unknown risks at the time of purchase. In my dividend portfolio, I always try to be diversified, meaning that I hold at least 30 – 40 individual securities representative of as many sectors that make sense. For some reason however, my portfolio only has a few companies traded internationally, which account for about 9% of its value.
International exposure is helpful, because different economies run on different market cycles. For example, if the economy in the US is stagnating, Asian countries might benefit from rise in economic output. In addition, some countries might benefit from increase in number of middle class consumers, which could bode well for earnings and stock prices and dividends.
By limiting themselves to only US companies, US investors might miss on international success stories that could benefit returns. With the increase in globalization, it is possible for a company to start small in one country, but then expand internationally. This could lead to increased profits, and hopefully dividends and stock prices. By increasing the pool of companies to look at, investors increase their chances of finding the next dividend gem for their portfolios.
Another positive fact of international dividend investing is diversifying away from the US dollar. By purchasing foreign assets, US investors will be receiving dividends denominated in Swiss francs, UK pounds, Canadian Dollars and others. This could be viewed as a positive by investors who believe that the US dollar will gradually lose purchasing power relative to these currencies over the long term.
While there are certain advantages to holding international dividend stocks, there are also a few disadvantages.
The first disadvantage includes that foreign stocks pay irregular dividends. Most pay distributions only once per year. Others pay dividends twice per year, by paying an interim and a final dividend. Often the interim dividend is 30%-40% of the total annual distribution, with the final dividend accounting for 60% – 70% of the annual distribution.
British based telecom giant Vodafone (VOD) is a prime example of this. For 2013, the company paid an interim dividend of 3.27 pence per share, while for the final dividend the company paid 6.92 pence per share, or a total of 10.19 pence per share. This is why calculating the dividend yield could be tricky on a company like Vodafone, especially given that the new interim dividend has recently been increased to 3.53 pence per share.
Another disadvantage of foreign dividend stocks is the fact that few international companies follow a managed dividend policy like US companies. Most US corporations pay a stable and rising dividend, and avoid cutting distributions at all costs. Most foreign companies tend to pay a fluctuating dividend, which could vary greatly from year to year. This variability is caused by the fact that most foreign companies tend to target a certain dividend payout ratio. Since earnings per share fluctuate, so do dividend payments to shareholders of these non-US based companies.
Investors also need to be careful in following dividend trends in the local currency, rather than the US dollar converted amounts. For example, for Unilever (UL) , it seems like distributions are declared in Euros, and then translated into pounds for PLC holders and dollars for ADR’s traded on US markets. Therefore, anyone who followed the dividend trends in pounds or dollars, would be focusing on noise. Focus on the dividend trends in Euro’s for Unilever.
Another disadvantage of owning foreign dividend stocks includes steep withholding taxes on distributions. These are typically withheld at source and could vary country by country. These taxes on dividend incomes charged to US investors could vary from 15% to as much as 25%. Investors can usually deduct taxes withheld fully if they are within 15%, using IRS form 1116. US investors who receive foreign dividends in retirement accounts however are still taxed on distributions receive, and cannot get them back. UK is one of the few countries which does not withhold taxes on dividend income paid to US investors. There are several companies which are headquartered in the UK and in another country such as the Netherlands or Australia. As a result, whenever you have a choice between the UK and the other country shares, always select the UK listed one.