Santander Holdings USA can once again pay dividends without prior regulatory approval after the Federal Reserve terminated a three-year-old written agreement.

The announcement Thursday marks a big step forward in the $135 billion-asset Boston company’s effort to turn the page on a string of regulatory headaches. The company — the U.S. division of Banco Santander, the Spanish banking giant — in June passed its annual stress test with the Fed after failing it three years in a row.

Scott Powell, CEO of Santander Holdings
Making progress
The Fed decision was "the second significant regulatory milestone we have accomplished in recent weeks, which underscores the key improvements we’ve made,” Santander Holdings USA CEO Scott Powell says. Two Fed enforcement orders remain in place.

The Fed hit Santander with the written agreement in September 2014. At issue was a move by its subprime auto unit, Santander Consumer, to declare a cash dividend on its common stock. Santander was prohibited at the time from doing so.

Now that the Fed has terminated the 2014 order, Santander Holdings can pay dividends or make other capital distributions without first obtaining written permission. The Fed had required Santander Holdings to strengthen board oversight of its subsidiaries.

“This is an important achievement and the second significant regulatory milestone we have accomplished in recent weeks, which underscores the key improvements we’ve made to strengthen our capital position, risk management and governance,” CEO Scott Powell said in a press release.

Earlier this year the Fed hit Santander with a separate enforcement order that requires the company to keep closer tabs on compliance and operations in its subprime auto unit. Both that order and a related order from 2015 remain in place.

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Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about the business of national and regional banking.