Fed gives OK for large banks to boost dividends, restart stock buybacks
Some of the largest banks in the country may boost dividends and restart stock repurchase plans now that the Federal Reserve has completed its comprehensive capital analysis and review. About two years ago, the central bank advised financial institutions "that safety and soundness considerations required that dividends be substantially reduced or eliminated." On Friday, the Fed plans to discuss its review with banks that requested a capital action, and all 19 firms that were subject to the stress tests will get "more detailed assessments of their capital planning processes next month." The mandates to boost capital levels included in Basel 3 and the new requirements in the sweeping Dodd-Frank financial reforms have "substantially clarified the regulatory environment in which these firms will be operating," the Fed said. From the end of 2008 through 2010, common equity increased by more than $300 billion at the 19 largest U.S. bank holding companies, the Fed said. Allowing these banks to return capital to shareholders improves the entire sector and helps promote the firms long-term access to capital, according to the central bank. The Fed has advised firms to keep dividends to 30% or less of earnings in 2011. Washington thinktank MF Global anticipates some large firms to act immediately on the Fed decision. "We would expect most of those banks to make announcements in the coming hours and days," analysts at the Washington-based commodities and derivatives brokerage said. Under the Fed's stress tests, banks had to show the ability to maintain at least a 5% Tier 1 common ratio. The most-recent test wasn't "as standardized" as the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program undertook in early 2009, and doesn't appear to be as transparent. "We hear many initial complaints about the black box nature of this stress test," MF Global said. "It is true that the Federal Reserve has provided less detail than in the 2009 test. Yet the Fed did disclose the key economic assumptions. So we believe there is more here than the first impression indicates." Write to Jason Philyaw.