Bank dividends

Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff” column (Bloomberg) offers some interesting commentary on what is happening with bank dividends in the US. Under the sub heading “People are worried about dividends” he writes:

So, again, I am generally pretty impressed by the performance of bank regulation in the current crisis, but this is unfortunate:

US banks’ annual capital plans, due to be submitted to the Federal Reserve on Monday, are expected to include proposals to continue paying dividends, reinforcing comments from prominent bank chief executives in recent days, according to people familiar with the situation.

The bankers, including Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon, Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman and Citigroup chief Mike Corbat, argued that they had the means to continue paying dividends and that cutting them would be “destabilising to investors”.

“We’re in a very different position than what we see in Europe,” said Marty Mosby, a veteran banks analyst at Vining Sparks.

“How we set it up [post-crisis capital requirements] was to be able to not have those dividends collapse [in a crisis]. That’s what creates a financial crisis: when dividends start to be ratcheted lower that shakes confidence.”

What is unfortunate is not so much that U.S. banks want to continue paying dividends; for all I know some of them are so well capitalized and so well equipped to weather this crisis that they will actually make a lot of money and have plentiful profits to pay out to shareholders. What is unfortunate is that their explicit view is that cutting dividends would be destabilizing. Common shareholders are supposed to be the lowest-ranking claimants on a bank’s money. The point of equity capital is that you don’t have to pay it out, that it doesn’t create any cash drain in difficult times. But if your view is “we need to maintain our dividend every quarter or else there will be a run on the bank,” then that means that the dividend is destabilizing; it means that your common stock is really debt; it means that your equity capital is not as good—not as equity-like—as it’s supposed to be.

If you take seriously the claim that banks can’t cut dividends in a generational crisis, for fear of undermining investor confidence, then, fine, I guess, but then the obvious conclusion is that when times are good you can never let banks raise their dividends. Every time a bank raises its dividend, on this theory, it incurs more unavoidable quarterly debt and creates a new drain on its funding, one that can’t be turned off in the bad times for fear of being “destabilising to investors”

Bloomberg Opinion “Money Stuff” 7 April 2020

I get the argument that if banks have the means to pay a dividend then they should be free to make a commercial decision. People may however feel entitled to be skeptical given the ways in which some banks were slow to adjust to the new realities of the GFC. There is also a line where the position some US banks appear to be projecting risks becoming an expectation that the dividend should be stable even under a highly stressed and uncertain outlook. It is not clear if that is exactly what the US banks quoted in his column are saying but that is how Matt Levine frames it and it would clearly be a concern if that is their view. That does seem to a fair description of the view some investors and analysts are expressing.

Jamie Dimon seems to be offering a more nuanced perspective on this question. He has advised JP Morgan shareholders that the Board expects the bank to remain profitable under its base base projections but would consider suspending the dividend under an extremely adverse scenario.

Our 2019 pretax earnings were $48 billion – a huge and powerful earnings stream that enables us to absorb the loss of revenues and the higher credit costs that inevitably follow a crisis. For comparison, the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) results for 2020 that we submitted to the Federal Reserve in 2019 (which assumed outcomes like U.S. unemployment peaking at 10% and the stock market falling 50%) showed a decline in revenue of almost 20% and credit costs of approximately $20 billion more than what we experienced in 2019. We believe we would perform better than this if the Fed’s scenario were to actually occur. But even in the Fed’s scenario, we would be profitable in every quarter. These stress test results also show that following such a meaningful reduction in our revenue (and assuming we continue to pay dividends), our common equity Tier 1 (CET1) ratio would likely hold at a very strong 10%, and we would have in excess of $500 billion of liquid assets. 

Additionally, we have run an extremely adverse scenario that assumes an even deeper contraction of gross domestic product, down as much as 35% in the second quarter and lasting through the end of the year, and with U.S. unemployment continuing to increase, peaking at 14% in the fourth quarter. Even under this scenario, the company would still end the year with strong liquidity and a CET1 ratio of approximately 9.5% (common equity Tier 1 capital would still total $170 billion). This scenario is quite severe and, we hope, unlikely. If it were to play out, the Board would likely consider suspending the dividend even though it is a rather small claim on our equity capital base. If the Board suspended the dividend, it would be out of extreme prudence and based upon continued uncertainty over what the next few years will bring.

It is also important to be aware that in both our central case scenario for 2020 results and in our extremely adverse scenario, we are lending – currently or plan to do so – an additional $150 billion for our clients’ needs. Despite this, our capital resources and liquidity are very strong in both models. We have over $500 billion in total liquid assets and an incremental $300+ billion borrowing capacity at the Federal Reserve and Federal Home Loan Banks, if needed, to support these loans, as well as meet our liquidity requirements (these numbers do not include the potential use of some of the Fed’s newly created facilities). We could, of course, make our capital and liquidity buffer better by restricting our activities, but we do not intend to do that – our clients need us.

JP Morgan Chairman and CEO Letter to Shareholders 2019 Annual Report

Banks are cyclical investments – who knew?

Stress testing models must of course be treated with caution but what I think this mostly illustrates is that banks are highly cyclical investments. That may seem like a statement of the obvious but there was a narrative post GFC that banks were public utilities and that bank shareholders should expect to earn public utility style returns on their investments.

There is an element of truth in this analogy in so far as banks clearly provide an essential public service. I am also sympathetic to the argument that banking is a form of private/public partnership. This pandemic is however a timely reminder of the limits of the argument that banks are just another low risk utility style of business. Bank shareholders are much more exposed to the cyclical impacts than true utility investments.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a substantial exposure to bank shares and I for one need a lot more than a single digit return to compensate for the pain that part of my portfolio is currently experiencing. The only upside is that I never bought into the thesis that banks are a low risk utility style investment requiring a commensurately low return.

The higher capital and liquidity requirements built up in response to the lessons of the GFC increase the odds that banks will survive the crisis and be a big part of the solution but banks are, and remain, quintessentially cyclical investments and the return bank investors require should reflect this. I think the lesson here is not to worry about the extent to which dividend cuts would be destabilising to investors but to focus on what kind of return is commensurate with the risk.

I will let APRA have the final say on what to expect …

APRA expects ADIs and insurers to limit discretionary capital distributions in the months ahead, to ensure that they instead use buffers and maintain capacity to continue to lend and underwrite insurance. This includes prudent reductions in dividends, taking into account the uncertain outlook for the operating environment and the need to preserve capacity to prioritise these critical activities. 

Decisions on capital management need to be forward-looking, and in the current environment of significant uncertainty in the outlook, this can be very challenging. APRA is therefore providing Boards with the following additional guidance.2 

During at least the next couple of months, APRA expects that all ADIs and insurers will:

– take a forward-looking view on the need to conserve capital and use capacity to support the economy;

– use stress testing to inform these views, and give due consideration to plausible downside scenarios (periodically refreshed and updated as conditions evolve); and

– initiate prudent capital management actions in response, on a pre-emptive basis, to ensure they maintain the confidence and capacity to continue to lend and support their customers. 

During this period, APRA expects that ADIs and insurers will seriously consider deferring decisions on the appropriate level of dividends until the outlook is clearer. However, where a Board is confident that they are able to approve a dividend before this, on the basis of robust stress testing results that have been discussed with APRA, this should nevertheless be at a materially reduced level. Dividend payments should be offset to the extent possible through the use of dividend reinvestment plans and other capital management initiatives. APRA also expects that Boards will appropriately limit executive cash bonuses, mindful of the current challenging environment.  

“APRA issues guidance to authorised deposit-taking institutions and insurers on capital management”, 7 April 2020

Tony (From the Outside)

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

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