Today is the day that investors in Bank of America (BAC 0.63%) and Citigroup (C -0.78%) have been waiting for. At 4:00 p.m. EDT, the Federal Reserve will announce which of the nation's largest banks will be allowed to increase their dividends and/or share buybacks.
Analysts and commentators will be paying particular attention to Bank of America and Citigroup, as both banks dropped their quarterly distributions to a nominal $0.01 per share during the financial crisis and have yet to up the ante (for clarity's sake, Citigroup currently pays $0.04 per share following a 1-for-10 reverse stock spilt in 2011).
The consensus is clearly in favor of higher payouts. A recent analysis by The Wall Street Journal found that the average expectation among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for a 1,220% increase in Citigroup's payout and a 406% boost to Bank of America's.
The rationale for the confidence is twofold. First, both banks have increased their capital bases considerably over the last few years. At present, Citigroup's Tier 1 common capital ratio is 10.5%. This is more than double the regulatory minimum of 5%. Meanwhile, Bank of America's came in at 9.96%.
And second, the two lenders have increased both the size and consistency of their earnings. Notably, this was one of the principal reasons that Bank of America's CEO Brian Moynihan gave for not requesting a dividend hike in last year's Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review.
There's no question that these are laudable accomplishments. At the same time, however, both of these lenders fared poorly in the 2014 stress test, the results of which were released last week. Under the Fed's "severely adverse" economic scenario, Bank of America's Tier 1 common capital ratio dropped to 6%, while Citigroup's fell to 7%. Aside from Utah-based Zions Bancorporation and global banking giant HSBC, these were the worst performances among the nation's largest traditional banks.
It's for this reason that I'm much more circumspect about the prospect of dividend boosts at Bank of America and Citigroup. In the former's case, I've been clear that I believe a larger quarterly distribution is in order, though I question whether Moynihan would have requested for a fourfold increase. And in the latter's case, the evidence suggests to me that it's leaning more toward buybacks.
Of course, I could be wrong on both counts. But either way, we'll know today at 4:00 p.m. EDT.