Nothin’ like having Uncle Sam cut an overly friendly deal. Plenty of folks, including yours truly, were skeptical of Treasury’s claim, made often with a straight face. that the government was exercising care on who got TARP funding (as in it was not just handing out dough willy-nilly, but did have an eye to getting taxpayer dough back). That of course presupposes that the banks getting the money were just a little bit bad off, as opposed to in Serious Trouble (belied by the aggregate size of the effort).
As the Economist put it:
Even today all banks remain plugged into government life support systems. Central banks give generous collateral rules for borrowing, in an effort to provide banks with liquidity. Some banks have managed to issue debt without government guarantees, but the system needs to refinance some $25.6 trillion of wholesale funding by 2011: without an implicit state back-stop this would be impossible. And the value of banks’ assets is being sheltered by central banks’ asset-purchasing programmes and in some cases flattered by more generous accounting rules. The truth is that the West has a thinly capitalised banking system that is being allowed to earn its way back to health. Save for defence and space exploration it is hard to think of a privately run industry more dependent on the state.
Given that there are no formal penalties for suspending TARP dividends (save a negative reaction in the markets, which would affect stock prices and borrowing rates, there consequences of missing payments may be de minimus. While three small banks missing payments is in theory no biggie, the action does point up the disconnect between the PR of TARP (protect the taxpayer) and practice (protect the banks). Even if the result of pressure to bolster capital levels, this precedent may encourage others to follow.
From the Wall Street Journal:
At least three small, cash-strapped banks have stopped paying the U.S. government dividends that they owe because they got $315.4 million in capital infusions under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Pacific Capital Bancorp, a Santa Barbara, Calif., lender that got $180.6 million from the Treasury Department in November, has since posted net losses of $49.7 million. Pacific Capital said Monday that it suspended dividend payments on its common and preferred stock as part of a wider effort to save about $8 million per quarter. A bank spokeswoman confirmed that the U.S.’s preferred shares are included in the dividend freeze.
Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida, of Stuart, Fla., and Midwest Banc Holdings Inc., of Melrose Park, Ill., have also halted their TARP-related dividends, citing the banking industry’s turmoil and a desire to fortify their balance sheets.
Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly said Monday that “a number of banks” that got taxpayer-funded capital under TARP are no longer paying dividends to the government. “Treasury respects the contractual rights of [TARP recipients] to make decisions about dividend distributions, and that banks are best positioned to decide how to manage their own capital base.”
The moves are a sign of the deepening misery for large swaths of the U.S. banking industry, suffering under bad loans and the recession even as large firms such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. rebound from the crisis, including by repaying their TARP funds last week.
“Here the government has given the banks money at great terms, but the fact that they can’t keep up with it is worrisome,” said Michael Shemi, an investor at New York hedge-fund firm Christofferson, Robb & Co. “It tells you of the deep problems of community and regional banks.”…
Gerard Cassidy, a banking analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said he was surprised that some TARP recipients “already are in such difficult financial situation” that they are no longer making dividend payments. “It goes to show you that the due diligence performed by the Treasury was not sufficient.”
Some lawmakers and banking-industry officials have criticized what they view as a lack of transparency and consistency in Treasury’s decisions about which banks received aid…
The decision to halt the dividends appears to stem partly from federal pressure. In April, the bank [Pacific Capital] entered into a memorandum of understanding with regulators that requires it to boost its capital levels by June 30.