As the annual Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review for some of the nation's largest banks looms, investors' interest turns to talk of dividends -- payouts that cannot occur without the Federal Reserve's say-so since the advent of the financial crisis.
Following the past three stress tests, both JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) have been allowed to raise their payouts. Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), which has maintained a $0.01 dividend since the crisis, hasn't requested a change to its dividend status after having its request rejected by the Fed in 2011.
Fed changes up the rules for 2014
As fellow Fool John Maxfield has said, Bank of America has been shifty on the subject of when it will ask to increase its payout, noting that the bank's CFO Bruce Thompson recently took the emphasis off of exactly when a payout will occur, choosing to put a "stream of predictable, recurring earnings" at the top of the bank's priority list.
Words to live by, but it still left investors in the dark regarding the bank's plans on a dividend increase request. Now, it seems, that question has been answered by the Federal Reserve itself, and the answer seems to be: Don't get your hopes up.
The reason for this increased uncertainty can be traced to changes implemented by the Federal Reserve for this year's CCAR tests. Instead of taking each bank holding company's own assessment for how it would fare during an economic slump, the Fed will now substitute its own numbers.
Historical data wins out
Why the change? Because, it seems, the Fed has found that banks' assets rose during each of the three years, based on historical data. The banks, on the other hand, always estimated that assets would drop during the government's recessionary model.
As the Fed points out, higher levels of assets will require more capital to be held against them -- resulting in lower pro forma capital ratios than would have been produced using the banks' calculations.
The differences could be huge. Using last year's CCAR as a model, the Fed shows that the median bank holding company estimated that assets would shrink by 3.8% using its own numbers, while regulators saw an increase of 2% to 3% during the stress scenario if historical data had been substituted. Similarly, the Fed would have noted loan growth of 1% to 2% using its own methodology, while the median financial institution saw a reduction of 7.8% during the same time frame.
Capital plan approval will be a tougher slog this time around
It's likely that even JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo might find themselves providing a lower dividend in light of these changes, even though both banks have been given permission to raise payouts over the past three years.
For Bank of America, the bank's past reluctance to ask for a dividend increase will almost certainly extend to the 2014 stress tests, especially in light of these changes. For another year, at least, B of A investors will likely remain in dividend limbo.
Fool contributor Amanda Alix has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.