In China, economic prosperity has created a new class of affluent consumers with a nearly insatiable appetite for goods and services.
For example, consider the $7.1 billion bid that China's largest meat processor made last week for America's largest hog farmer and pork producer. Shuanghui International Holding is looking to buy Smithfield Foods (NYSE: SFD) to increase meat imports to China, where domestic production can't keep pace with fast-rising demand.
The consumer is at the centerpiece of the emerging market growth story, which is creating expansion opportunities for consumer goods companies such as Smithfield and supporting earnings and dividend gains for income investors. In the past five years, the consumer-oriented sectors of the MSCI Emerging Market index have significantly outperformed the broader index, which in turn has greatly outperformed the S&P 500. From a pre-recession peak in 2008, consumer staples is up 82%, health care is up 66% and consumer discretionary is up 32%.
Investors eager to profit from the appetite for consumer goods in emerging markets could invest directly in stocks based in the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), but this may not be an optimal strategy. For instance, well-publicized accounting frauds hint at the riskiness of China's stock market. Even the markets that are considered relatively safe, such as India and Brazil, can't compare with the U.S. stock market in terms of transparency and the timeliness of disclosure.
A better option for most investors -- and one that's closer to home -- is owning shares of U.S. companies with large overseas operations. These blue-chip companies have multinational operations, great exposure to emerging markets, reliable profit growth and hefty dividends for income investors.
|General Electric (NYSE:
|General Electric is the world's largest conglomerate, with operations ranging from power generation, industrial products and water processing to household appliances, health care, and consumer and business financing. GE derives more than half of its revenue from overseas and has sizable operations in Europe, China, Russia, India and Africa.
Increasing its presence in emerging markets is a key goal for GE. The company has established research centers in China and India and manufacturing plants across the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and Latin America to benefit from rising health care spending in these regions. These investments have paid off for GE's health care business, with 22% annual growth in China and 19% annual growth in Southeast Asia over the past three years. GE is also poised to benefit from purchases of its water filtration systems by China, where eight of the 28 provinces lack adequate supplies of clean water.
Growth in China helped GE post 12% growth in earnings per share (EPS) from continuing operations last year to $1.39. Analysts are looking for EPS growth of 11% in each of the next five years. Even more impressive, the company's cash flow improved 48% last year, to $17.8 billion, which should provide plenty of fuel for dividend growth. GE cut its dividend in 2010 but has since raised it five times, including a 12% hike in December.
|The world's leading paper products company and the owner of brands such as Kleenex, Scott, Kotex, Huggies and Kimberly-Clark holds the No. 1 or No. 2 market share in more than 80 countries. The company is maintaining its U.S. market share while growing its international business, which now accounts for 37% of Kimberly-Clark's sales, up from 22% just five years ago.
Kimberly-Clark's EPS rose 11% last year, to $4.42, and analysts expect 8% EPS growth for the next five years. A Dividend Aristocrat, Kimberly-Clark has posted 41 consecutive years of dividend gains. The most recent increase was 10% in February to an annualized rate of $3.24. Dividend payout from cash flow is conservative at 35%, leaving plenty of room for further growth.
|Philip Morris International (NYSE:
|Spun off from Altria (NYSE: MO) five years ago, Philip Morris has become the world's leading international tobacco company, with sales in more than 180 countries. Tobacco consumption in the United States is declining, but smoking remains very popular in Asia and Africa.
Philip Morris has the world's top-selling cigarette brand in Marlboro and is aggressively expanding in China, where roughly a quarter of the population smokes. The company partnered with China National Tobacco Corp., which recently began producing Marlboro cigarettes under license. In addition, Philip Morris is rapidly gaining share in Indonesia, where 67% of the male population are smokers and rising incomes are driving demand for premium brands. The company's sales in Asia rose 6% last year to $11.2 billion and now account for more than a third of its total annual sales of $31.4 billion.
EPS rose 12% last year, to $5.45, and Philip Morris has met or exceeded its 10%-plus EPS growth target every year since the spin-off. The company's operating margin is strong at 44%, well above the 37% average of its industry peers.
Philip Morris raised its dividend by 11% in September and generates enough cash flow to cover the dividend twice over, so future increases appear likely. With 10-year Treasury yields still hovering near 2%, the company's 3.7% yield becomes even more appealing.
Risks to Consider: Simply having exposure to emerging markets doesn't make a company a winning investment. A case in point is Yum Brands (NYSE: YUM), which is posting 20% annual growth in China but experiencing falling sales in the United States.
Action to Take --> My top pick overall is GE. Phillip Morris is a good choice for investors seeking higher yields, and Kimberly-Clark is a standout for dividend safety.