WASHINGTON -- Citigroup cannot raise its dividend or buy back its own stock because it needs better plans to cope with a severe recession, the Federal Reserve ruled Wednesday, a disappointing reversal for one of the nation’s largest banks.
The Fed also rejected the capital plans of four other big banks as part of its so-called "stress tests," an annual check-up of the nation’s 30 biggest financial institutions.
The Fed said that the capital plans of Citigroup fell short in some areas, including its ability to forecast revenues and losses in parts of its global operations, should they come under economic stress. Citi had asked the Fed’s permission to buy back $6.4 billion in shares through the first quarter of next year, and to raise its dividend to 5 cents each quarter.
As with Citigroup, the Fed said it found deficiencies in the capital plans of HSBC North America Holdings, RBS Citizens Financial Group, Santander Holdings USA and Zions Bancorp. The central bank, however, approved requests outright from the other 25 tested banks, which included JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley, in addition to Bank of America and Goldman Sachs.
Citigroup was blocked from raising its dividend in 2012, too, after failing its stress test that year. Before the financial crisis, its dividend peaked at $5.40 per quarter in 2007.
The dividends and share buybacks that the Fed weighed are important to ordinary investors, and banks. The banks know that their investors suffered big losses in the financial crisis, and they are eager to reward them. Some shareholders, especially retirees, rely on dividends for a portion of their income.
But raising dividends costs money. The regulators don’t want banks to deplete their capital reserves, making them vulnerable in another recession. Buybacks also are aimed at helping shareholders. By reducing the number of a company’s outstanding shares, earnings per share can increase.
The announcement Wednesday follows last week’s results of the Fed’s annual "stress tests." The central bank determined that the U.S. banking industry is better able to withstand a major economic downturn than at any time since the financial crisis struck in 2008. The Fed said that only one of the 30 biggest banks in the country needed to take more steps to shore up its capital base. That bank was Zions.
Citigroup and the other big Wall Street banks, as well as hundreds of others, were bailed out by the government during the crisis. The banking industry has been recovering steadily since then, with overall profits rising and banks starting to lend more freely. The banks have mostly repaid the taxpayer bailouts.
The Fed has conducted stress tests of the largest U.S. banks annually since 2009, the year after the financial crisis plunged the country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Under the stress tests’ "severely adverse" scenario this year, the U.S. would undergo a recession in which unemployment -- now at 6.7 percent -- would reach 11.25 percent, stocks would lose nearly half their value and home prices would plunge 25 percent.