Few, if any, investors buy stocks of big banks for the dividends these days. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.
Yes, regulators are poised to loosen restrictions on dividend payments. Healthy giants such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and U.S. Bancorp are also eager to appease testy investors by mailing out a bigger share of profits each quarter, something that could start happening early next year.
But the checks in those envelopes — by these banks' own admission — are unlikely to be much bigger than they are right now. It could be years before large banks enjoy one of the key perks of being a dividend-paying company: Steady demand for shares from income-hungry investors that serves as a kind of safety net on stock prices. Right now most such investors are buying stocks of a handful of community banks that will keep paying richer dividends than big banks, even after they raise theirs.
"The dividend will not be the primary attraction, not at this stage, because the yields will still be relatively low" on large bank stocks, said Fred Cummings, president of Elizabeth Park Capital Management Ltd. in Beachwood, Ohio. News last week that the Federal Reserve was preparing dividend-raising guidelines for healthy banks is an important step in returning the industry to normal, Almost every large bank slashed its dividend to save money during the financial crisis. Seven have the health and inclination to restore them next year: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo & Co., PNC Financial Services Group Inc., U.S. Bancorp, Bank of New York Mellon Corp., BB&T Corp. and State Street Corp.
The main holdup for these companies has been final word from regulators on global capital standards. That is expected to come shortly as the Group of 20 countries meet in Seoul, South Korea, this week.
"The world is becoming more certain. … There is a class of banks that you really do get a good sense of what the credit issues are today," said Fred Cannon, co-director of research at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "A concern a lot of us had is regulators in Washington would still keep banks on hold for six or nine months" after the G-20 meeting.
The main benefits of getting the go-ahead first: Bragging rights, and more freedom to reward shareholders. Those things are important, to be sure. But healthier banks have already been getting plenty of validation from investors in the form of higher share prices. And some, like JPMorgan Chase, have been allowed to repurchase shares.
Higher dividends won't alter the competitive landscape for banks either, experts say. Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, for instance, hasn't been waiting for permission to raise its dividend before making a grab for market share from rival Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, which can't raise its dividend before returning its bailout money.
The two banks are fighting for customers — not investors. And both have plenty of capital for strategic moves. That won't change when U.S. Bancorp raises its quarterly dividend from the current nickel per share.
Raising the dividend also won't bring — at least not immediately, experts say — a return en masse of investors who fled bank stocks when the economy collapsed: retirees, mutual funds, insurance companies and others that prefer security and steady income to capital gains.
Dividend investors, who have been favoring community bank stocks of late, are highly prized because they tend to keep a stock from falling too low. They'll buy more shares if the price starts falling. That dynamic has been evident in the share prices of a number of community banks that never stopped paying a healthy dividend, including F.N.B. Corp in Hermitage, Pa., United Bankshares Inc. in Charleston, W.Va., and New York Community Bancorp Inc. in Westbury. Those three have outperformed the KBW Bank Index so far this year. Experts say this group may keep attracting the bulk of dividend investors because large banks have said they're going to raise their payouts slowly.
JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bancorp and PNC have all said they expect to eventually pay out 30% to 40% of earnings as dividends. It will take time to work up to that level. JPMorgan Chase, for example, shared about 4.9% of its profits with stockholders last quarter, paying 5 cents a share.
"It's not going to go right up to 30% or so. We are probably going to have kind of a quantum leap and be a little careful," JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon JPMorgan Chase, said in September.
Keefe Bruyette analysts expect JPMorgan Chase to share about 14% of its profits as dividends in 2011, which works out to about 16 cents a share each quarter. At that rate its dividend yield would be a relatively paltry 1.6%. For comparison F.N.B.'s shares — which pay a dividend of 12 cents per quarter — yield 5.3% right now. United Bankshares' yield is 4.22%.; New York Community's, 5.85%.
KBW expects the overall yield for all of the large banks it tracks to be about 1.9% in 2011, even as it projects they will double from current levels at JPMorgan Chase, PNC and U.S. Bancorp. The uncertain economy and a desire to do acquisitions means most large banks will keep a lot of "dry powder" on their balance sheets by maintaining "modest" dividends, KBW analysts said.