I will confess I missed a post opportunity Thursday AM, when an alert reader sent a link to a USA Today story, “34 banks don’t pay their quarterly TARP dividends, ” but I decided to return to it precisely because it has gotten little attention:
The U.S. taxpayers’ investments in smaller banks are increasingly at risk.
In a sign that more banks are under great pressure from the recession, 34 financial institutions did not pay their quarterly dividends in August to the Treasury on funds obtained under the Troubled Asset Relief Fund (TARP). The number almost doubled from 19 in May when payments were last made, and also raised questions about Treasury’s judgment in approving these banks as “healthy,” a necessary step for them to get TARP funding.
“The banks are not paying their dividends because they are worried about preserving capital,” says Eric Fitzwater, associate director of research at SNL Financial.
Of the 34 miscreants, two are pretty large, namely AIG and CIT, But the next on the list is First Bancorp, which received a mere $400 million from the TARP. Probably more important than the number is the trend, since the number of institutions that skipped dividends nearly doubled. In a supposedly improving economy and with a steep yield curve (at least until very recently), things appear to be getting worse rather than better.
I didn’t post on this because I assumed the MSM would be all over it. So I am pretty surprised to see it has gotten very little coverage. The usual suspects (Bloomberg, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times) were silent. Huffington Post linked to the USA Today story. Reuters featured it only via Rolfe Winkler, who had some useful commentary:
When stronger banks including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and American Express repurchased warrants at modest premiums after paying back TARP, most news reports suggested that taxpayers were profiting from the bailout. But those reports didn’t tell the whole story.
For one, they ignored adverse selection, the propensity for the best borrowers to exit the program first, leaving Treasury holding the poorest performing investments. According to the latest data from Treasury, 42 banks have paid back some or all of the cash they got from TARP’s Capital Purchase Program, $70.7 billion in total. But more than 600 banks remain in the CPP program. Together, they still owe $134 billion.
And this excludes other TARP bailout programs that are likely to cost billions. The automotive industry owes TARP $80 billion. And AIG owes TARP $69.8 billion. Much of that isn’t coming back.
It’s also myopic to view TARP in isolation. Take Citigroup. After converting its preferred equity investment to 7.7 billion common shares at $3.25, Treasury is showing a paper profit of $11 billion. Sounds great, right?
But Citigroup’s common equity would long ago have fallen to zero if other bailouts, in particular FDIC’s debt guarantee program, weren’t insulating shareholders from losses.
Citigroup is the only large bank still using the FDIC’s program. Two weeks ago, the bank sold another $5 billion worth of guaranteed debt, bringing its total issued under the program to $49.6 billion.
The bottom line is that the government still stands behind the banking sector. While the cost of this “no more Lehmans” policy may not be known for years, our experience with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac tells us that such implicit guarantees ultimately prove very expensive. The fact that more banks are falling behind on dividend payments reminds us the tab is growing.
Is this mere oversight? Financial crisis fatigue? Nary a bad word will be said about the TARP? Hard to say….