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Dividend-seeking investors should check out technology, says fund manager

Texas Instruments products are displayed at a computer store in Santa Clara, Calif.

Paul Sakuma/AP

Investors seeking steady income flows may have ignored the technology sector and the unexpected impact technology is having on companies in other industries, Kera Van Valen, a portfolio manager at Epoch Investment Partners, said on Friday.

People have overlooked technology in terms of dividends and the changes some companies have made regarding the cash they generate, Ms. Van Valen told the Reuters Global Investment 2018 Outlook Summit in New York.

"Within the tech sector you have seen a slight shift in appreciation towards the discipline of returning cash to shareholders. That's something people don't expect," she said.

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Texas Instruments Inc is now part of Epoch's high-dividend-based "shareholder" yield strategy as the chipmaker has committed to returning 100 per cent of free cash flow through dividends and share buybacks, she said.

The company targets free cash flow to be somewhere in the range of 20 per cent to 30 per cent of their revenue, said Ms. Van Valen, who helps oversee Epoch's U.S. and global dividend strategies, which account for half of its $48.6-billion in assets under management.

Epoch's Shareholder Yield strategy is invested in a number of companies that use technology to improve their productivity, asset utilization and to reduce capital requirements.

The result is an increase in return on equity and a company's ability to return more capital to shareholders in the form of dividends, share repurchases and debt reduction.

Increased efficiency through technology also has been unrecognized by investors in unforeseen places such as utilities, where Epoch owns utility holding company PPL Corp .

PPL is spending $500-million on a smart meter replacement program that will modernize the power grid to make it smarter and more resilient, Ms. Van Valen said.

PPL can be more efficient when deploying people to deal with outages as a result of smart meters, she said. They will no longer need people to look for the outages.

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Another technology play investors may have missed is McDonald's Corp, which has partnered with UberEATS and the use of a mobile app offer delivery in 3,700 restaurants, Van Valen said. McDonald's is touting its technology to increase efficiency, which flows to a company's bottom line, she said.

"You don't necessary think of a large global fast food chain as a technology company," she said. "It's helping with the growth in the revenues, profits and cash flows, which, from our perspective, that means growth in the dividends."

Epoch is "quite constructive" on the outlook for 2018 as the market shifts from a period of central bank-driven low interest rates to one focused on profit growth and margins.

Another overlooked stock is Red Electrica in Spain, where the utility is unlikely to see changes in the regulatory environment and Epoch expects the dividend to grow 7 per cent to 8 per cent a year, Ms. Van Valen said.

"It's a regulated utility so it falls within that boring mantra that we like so much," she said.

Another name Epoch likes is Altria Group Inc because of the strong pricing power and tremendous cash flows enjoyed by tobacco companies, she said.

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Altria is "very consistent about returning cash to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks and debt reduction," she said.

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