The Coming Buyback Frenzy

Capital planning is examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired. Click here to access the content on BankDirector.com.

The banking industry hasn’t been this well capitalized in a long time. In fact, you have to go back to the 1940s — almost 80 years ago — before you find a time in history when the tangible common equity ratio was this high, says Tom Michaud, president and CEO of investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, during a presentation for Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired platform.

That ratio for FDIC-insured banks has nearly doubled since 2008, he says, reaching 8.5% as of Sept. 30, 2020, says Michaud.

A big part of the industry’s high levels of capital goes back to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, the Congressional response to the financial crisis of 2008-09. Because of that law, banks must maintain new regulatory capital and liquidity ratios that vary based on their size and complexity.

During the pandemic, banks were in much better shape. You can see the impact by looking at the capital ratios of just a handful of big banks. Citigroup, for example, had a tangible common equity ratio in the third quarter of 2020 that was nearly four times what it was in 2008, Michaud says.

With a deluge of government aid and loans such as the Paycheck Protection Program, the industry’s losses during the pandemic have been minimal so far. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has closed just four banks, far fewer than the deluge of failures that took place during the financial crisis. So far, financial institutions have maintained their profitability. Almost no banks that pay a dividend cut theirs last year.

Meanwhile, regulators required many of the large banks, which face extra scrutiny and stress testing compared to smaller banks, to halt share repurchases and cap dividends last year, further pumping up capital levels.

That means that banks have a lot of capital on their books. Analysts predict a wave of share repurchases in the months ahead as banks return capital to shareholders.

“The banking industry continues to make money,” said Al Laufenberg, a managing director at KBW, during another Bank Director session. “The large, publicly traded companies are coming out with statements saying, ‘We have too much capital.’”

Investors have begun to ask more questions about what banks are doing with their capital. “We see investors getting a little bit more aggressive in terms of questions,” he says. “‘What are you going to do for me?”

Bank of America Corp. already has announced a $2.9 billion share repurchase in the first quarter of 2021. In fact, KBW expects all of the nation’s universal and large regional banks to repurchase shares this year, according to research by analysts Christopher McGratty and Kelly Motta. They estimate the universal banks will buy back 7.3% of shares in 2021, while large regionals will buy back 3.5% of shares on average. On Dec. 18, 2020, the Federal Reserve announced those banks would again be allowed to buy back shares after easing earlier restrictions.

Regulators didn’t place as many restrictions during the pandemic on small- and medium-sized banks, so about one-third of them already bought their own stock in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to McGratty.

In terms of planning, banks that announce share repurchases don’t have to do them all at once, Laufenberg says. They can announce a program and then buy back stock when they determine the pricing is right.

Shareholders can benefit when banks buy back stock because that can reduce outstanding shares, increasing the value of individual shares, as long as banks don’t buy back stock when the stock is overvalued. Although bank stock prices compared to tangible book value and earnings have returned to pre-Covid levels, the KBW Regional Banking Index (KRX) has underperformed broader market indices during the past year, making an argument in favor of more repurchases.

Robert Fleetwood, a partner and co-chair of the financial institutions group at the law firm Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP, who spoke on the Bank Director session with Laufenberg, cautions bank executives to find out if their regulators require pre-approval. Every Federal Reserve region is different. Regulators want banks to have as much capital as possible, but Fleetwood says they understand that banks may be overcapitalized at the moment.

High levels of capital will help banks grow in the future, invest in technology, add loans and consolidate. For the short term, though, investors in bank stocks may be the immediate winners.