The executives at New York Community Bancorp (NYSE:NYCB) are in a bind. While they want to continue growing the bank's balance sheet, doing so could jeopardize its quarterly distribution to shareholders.
The reason for this is simple. By the end of last year, New York Community Bancorp's assets had reached $46.7 billion dollars. This is only $3.3 billion below the $50-billion threshold that transforms a bank into a systematically important financial institution, or SIFI.
Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with crossing this line. In fact, if any bank should feel comfortable doing so, it's New York Community Bancorp. Over the past two decades, it's grown aggressively through acquisitions without putting even a dime of its shareholders' capital at risk.
But while crossing the SIFI threshold will probably have little impact on the bank itself, it doesn't seem that the same can be said for its dividend.
In 2013, it distributed 92.3% of its earnings to shareholders. By comparison, the Federal Reserve has been clear that it wants SIFIs to keep this figure at or below 30%. As the central bank noted in its guidance to this year's Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review process (emphasis added):
The Federal Reserve expects that capital plans will reflect conservative common dividend payout ratios. In particular, requests that imply common dividend payout ratios above 30 percent of projected after-tax net income available to common shareholders in either the BHC baseline or supervisory baseline will receive particularly close scrutiny.
Does this mean that New York Community Bancorp must choose between growth and maintaining its generous quarterly payout? Not necessarily, or at least not in CEO Joseph Ficalora's opinion.
Here's how he answered an analyst's question on the subject at the beginning of last year:
The whole concept of limiting dividends had to do with adequate capital, has nothing to do with paying shareholders for investing in your company. So the idea that we would be governed by what other people can afford to pay is not consistent with anything that has historically happened in the marketplace.
Ficalora obviously has a point. And, for what it's worth, I agree with him. However, it remains to be seen whether the Fed will adopt a similar philosophy. And in the meantime, given the central bank's otherwise unambiguous guidance, it's probably safer to assume that it won't.