Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Bank of America's Dividend Lags Its Peers -- but That Could Soon Change

By Bram Berkowitz - Mar 9, 2021 at 9:35AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Among the big banks, it's arguably in the best position to return more capital to shareholders.

Bank of America (BAC -1.49%), the second-largest bank in the U.S. by assets, has achieved a lot over the past year. It survived a global pandemic and performed well through an intense economic downturn and in an extremely low-interest-rate environment. It also received a big nod of approval from legendary investor Warren Buffett: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A -1.18%)(BRK.B -1.11%) bought more than $2 billion worth of the bank's stock, even as it eliminated or trimmed most of the other bank holdings in its portfolio.

Despite all this, its dividend payouts have lagged those of its big-bank rivals. But considering that its performance is now at the top end of its peer group, I expect this may soon change.

Dividend yield

To see how Bank of America's payouts have come up a bit short, let's first look at the most common metric investors use to gauge them: dividend yield. That, simply, is the sum of annual dividend payments divided by the company's share price. Below, I took each bank's total  dividend payouts from 2020, and divided by its closing share price Friday.

Bank Dividend Yield
JPMorgan Chase (JPM -1.81%) 2.4%
Bank of America 1.9%
Citigroup (C 1.01%) 2.9%
Wells Fargo (WFC -0.62%) 3.3%

Source: Bank financial statements

At 1.9%, Bank of America's yield trails them all. Additionally, it's slightly behind the average dividend yield of the banking sector, which is currently a little over 2%, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Bank of America

Image source: Bank of America

Dividend payout ratio

One can also look at a company's dividend payout ratio -- the percentage of its earnings that a company allocates to dividends on an annual basis.

Bank Dividend Payout
Ratio 2020
Dividend Payout Ratio 2019
JPMorgan Chase 40.5% 32%
Bank of America 38.5% 24%
Citigroup 43% 25%
Wells Fargo 298% 47%

Source: Bank financial statements

Bank of America had the smallest dividend payout ratio in both 2019 and 2020. The ratios last year were elevated because earnings took a hit due to the pandemic. Banks tend to be a little more conservative than average with their dividend payout ratios. In some other sectors, it would not be uncommon to find payout ratios ranging from 50% to 70%. But the big banks have also been using some of their earnings to repurchase billions of dollars worth of their own stock in recent years. 

Excess capital

The other consideration when it comes to bank dividends specifically involves their regulatory capital requirements. A bank must maintain a certain amount of capital in relation to its risk-weighted assets, so that even if it must absorb significant unexpected loan losses, it will still be able to lend during an economic downturn.

For this reason, banks' ability to pay out dividends and buy back stock is limited by regulators. One measure of capital relative to risk-weighted assets is the common equity tier 1 (CET1) capital ratio. If a bank falls below its CET1 minimum, it can still return capital to shareholders, but it may be limited in how much it can return, so banks try to avoid going anywhere near that threshold unless they absolutely have to.

Bank CET1
Ratio 2020
Required CET1 Ratio Excess Capital
JPMorgan Chase 13.1% 11.3% ~$31 billion
Bank of America 11.9% 9.5% ~$36 billion
Citigroup 11.73% 10% ~$21 billion
Wells Fargo 11.6% 9% ~$31 billion

Source: Bank financial statements and earnings transcripts

As you can see above, all four of the big U.S. banks have a ton of excess capital above their required CET1 minimum ratios. And normally, that excess capital will not get depleted because banks typically make capital distributions from their earnings each quarter. Leftover earnings essentially get added to the excess capital cushion. Even so, Bank of America's $36 billion in excess capital is a huge amount and significantly more than the other banks have.

Catching up with competitors

As Bank of America has said before, it doesn't have a lot of ways to spend all of its excess capital. It can't go out and buy another depository institution because U.S. law prohibits any bank from purchasing its way into owning more than 10% of all U.S. deposits. In other words, two institutions can't combine if the post-merger bank will hold more than 10% of those deposits.

As it happens, Bank of America already does hold more than 10% of all U.S. deposits -- but it grew into that status organically, and its other large acquisitions since it did so involved institutions that federal regulations didn't consider "banks."

So Bank of America will continue to grow organically and invest in its operations, but that spending can only reduce its excess capital by so much.

And yes, it will likely buy back tens of billions of dollars worth of its stock over the next few years, but so will the other big banks. Bank of America is also arguably in the best position among its peers to return capital to shareholders. Not only does it have the most excess capital, but it's not dealing with any potential issues in regards to the supplementary leverage ratio like JPMorgan. It's also not dealing with heavy regulatory issues that require major investments to correct as are Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

That's why I would expect that management at Bank of America would want to boost its dividend payout until it was more in line with its peers -- or even to bump its yield up until it surpasses theirs, because that's another way to stand out. And if you're an institution with $36 billion in excess capital, and you're somewhat limited in terms of ways that you can deploy it, why not start by being more aggressive with your dividend?

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Bank of America Corporation Stock Quote
Bank of America Corporation
$34.36 (-1.49%) $0.52
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$455,554.92 (-1.18%) $-5,445.08
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
$303.24 (-1.11%) $-3.40
Citigroup Inc. Stock Quote
Citigroup Inc.
$49.82 (1.01%) $0.50
JPMorgan Chase & Co. Stock Quote
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
$117.92 (-1.81%) $-2.17
Wells Fargo & Company Stock Quote
Wells Fargo & Company
$41.85 (-0.62%) $0.26

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning service.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 05/19/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.