U.S. banks may cut dividends for political reasons instead of financial as an inflating chorus of lawmakers, former regulators and consumer advocates say it is not appropriate for them to tap emergency funding programs while paying out cash to investors.
The eight most significant U.S. lenders, led by JPMorgan Chase & Co , already paused stock repurchases earlier this month. They said that it was a patriotic move that would allow them to put more capital towards lending to persons and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, which has clogged stock prices and led the Federal Reserve to afford trillions of dollars into the financial system.
“That is not enough,” said Sheila Bair, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, in an interview on Tuesday. “They should be conserving all available capital. We are in a severe health crisis that is turning into an economic crisis.”
Those eight banks collectively pay about $9 billion in quarterly dividends on common stock, according to Refinitiv data.
Big banks faced similar criticism last week from Democratic lawmakers and groups including the Systemic Risk Council, a global group of influential ex-regulators that counts Bair as a member, and Better Markets, which advocates for Wall Street reforms.
U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, proposed a temporary ban on corporate stock buybacks and dividends.
Cutting dividends at this point would not be a sign that the banks are in financial straits, but rather that they are sensitive to political concerns, analysts said.
Although bank balance sheets are in much better shape than other companies whose dividends are at risk – such as airlines, hotels, automakers and retailers – the industry still faces a stigma from the last U.S. crisis in 2008.
The big-bank bailouts of that era led to the Occupy Wall Street movement and advocacy work that continues today. On Monday, the hashtag #NotDying4WallStreet sprouted up on Twitter, in response to politicians, including Republican President Donald Trump, who have said major cities that have shut down due to coronavirus risks should re-open to help the economy.
The dividend pressure has increased up even more in Europe, where industrial companies have begun cutting payments and Banco Santander SA said it would not issue its next semi-annual dividend despite being able to do so.
Even though U.S. banks keep paying dividends at present levels, they may take decision to cut them for appearance’s sake, some analysts said.
They might trim the dividends back for optics,” said Viola Risk Advisors analyst David Hendler. “But in terms of capital, the U.S. banks are the strongest banks in the world.”
Dividend cutoff is a difficult decision for companies because the payouts are seen as proofs of good financial health and encourage loyalty from shareholders who buy shares or indices expecting that revenue.
“Most companies will view their dividends as sacrosanct,” said Portales Partners analyst Charles Peabody, who expects most big banks to maintain theirs.
But Bair noted that, in addition to Fed programs that have poured trillions of dollars into bond markets in recent weeks, banks have also benefited from expanded deposit insurance and regulatory easing and that their shareholders have gotten generous payouts the past few years.