Fed official kicks dividend hikes down the road

November 12, 2010, 11:01 PM UTC

It looks like bank investors are going to be stuck with a lot of small change for a while.

Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo said in a speech Friday that he expects U.S. bank regulators to take a “conservative” approach in handling requests by big bank holding companies to increase their dividends.

Keep those jelly jars handy

The biggest banks have generally been paying just a penny or a nickel per share each quarter ever since the financial sector caved in two years ago. Holding down shareholder payouts has helped big firms such as JPMorgan Chase , Wells Fargo and even Citi restore their capital bases over the past two years. 

Now, with the broad outlines of global capital rules in place and the biggest banks generally turning in solid profits, “there has been substantial recent interest” in restoring or increasing dividend payouts, Tarullo said.

But in a response that may disappoint some bank fans, Tarullo said Friday that the Fed will move slowly in approving higher dividends, in the name of maintaining the stability of the financial system.

He said regulators will force big banks seeking to boost their payouts to submit a plan showing how their capital will hold up should the economy turn down again – a version of the stress tests the Fed and other watchdogs ran to such acclaim in May 2009.

Although the details of these guidelines are still being finalized, I can say that our approach to considering such requests will be a conservative one. We will expect firms to submit convincing capital plans that demonstrate their ability to absorb losses over the next two years under an adverse economic scenario that we will specify, and still remain amply capitalized. We also expect that firms will have a sound estimate of any significant risks that may not be captured by the stress testing, such as potential mortgage putback exposures, and the capacity to absorb any consequent losses. The firms will also be asked to show how, even with their proposed capital distributions, they will readily and comfortably meet the Basel III requirements as they come into effect, as well as to accommodate any business model changes that might be necessitated by Dodd-Frank.

The comment about exposure to mortgage putbacks can’t be all that uplifting for dividend-starved investors, particularly those at giant mortgage servicer Bank of America , given the haze hanging over that subject.

By virtue of its self-described fortress balance sheet, JPMorgan Chase has been under the most scrutiny over the timing of its return to fuller dividend payments. The bank cut its quarterly payout to a nickel in 2008 from 38 cents and has been fielding regular questions from shareholders over when the dividend might rise back to its normal level.

CEO Jamie Dimon has said the bank is “hopeful” that it can start raising  the dividend early next year, and some optimistic analysts have even set their hearts on this quarter. But Tarullo tempered those expectations Friday when he said regulators are working on supervisory guidance that won’t even be released till the first quarter.

Sounds like mid-2011 is the earliest JPMorgan shareholders might expect to stop being nickeled and dimed.