Over the last five years, most banks in the United States slashed their dividend payments to cover heightened credit losses and increased regulatory oversight. To boost them back up, banks need approval from the Federal Reserve -- which, to date, has been forthcoming only to lenders that are conservative in their requests to do so.
The experiences of Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) are illustrative. In 2007, Bank of America distributed $2.60 per share while Citigroup's split-adjusted payout equated to $21.60 a share. Today, the banks each pay $0.04 a share. To add insult to injury, on separate occasions over the last few years, they've both had requests to increase their annual payouts denied by regulators.
With this in mind, if there ever was a test of a bank's commitment and ability to continue paying its shareholders, then the financial crisis was it. And at least among the nation's largest banks, only two passed it: M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB ) and New York Community Bancshares (NYSE: NYCB ) .
M&T's chairman and chief executive officer touched on this in last year's letter to shareholders (emphasis added):
It is well worth noting that, although 2012 did see us reach a new earnings peak, M&T, in contrast to many of our peers, had not experienced any significant disruption to our business model over the past six years, beyond those unforced errors referred to in the 2009 Message to Shareholders. Indeed, even as the financial crisis that became known as the Great Recession developed, we never missed, or reduced, our dividend payments.
And New York Community Bancshares has now paid $1 per share to its shareholders for 38 consecutive quarters. As its chief financial officer said in June, "we've been paying this dividend for now going into year nine. So we're very comfortable that we have the capital, the ability to continue to pay our dividend."
For income investors, these two banks serve as valuable reminders of the importance of picking your investments carefully, as only the best in the business can offer safety and security of yield.
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