Capital allocation may not be something bank executives and directors spend a lot of time thinking about—but they should. To fully maximize performance, a bank must both earn big profits and allocate those profits wisely.
This is why the annual stress tests administered each year by the Federal Reserve are important, even for the 5,570 banks and savings institutions that don’t qualify as systemically important financial institutions, or SIFIs, and are spared the ritual. The widely publicized release of the results is an opportunity for all banks to reassess whether their capital allocation strategies are creating value.
There are two phases to the stress tests. In the first phase, the results of which were released on June 21, the Fed projects the impact of an acute economic downturn on the participating banks’ balance sheets. This is known as the Dodd-Frank Act stress test, or DFAST. So long as a bank’s capital ratios remain above the regulatory minimum through the nine-quarter scenario, then it passes this phase, as was the case with all 35 banks that completed DFAST this year.
The second phase is the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review, or CCAR. In this phase, banks request permission from the Fed to increase the amount of capital they return to shareholders by way of dividends and share buybacks. So long as a bank’s proposed capital actions don’t cause its capital ratios from the first phase to dip below the regulatory minimum, and assuming no other deficiencies in the capital-planning process are uncovered by the Fed during CCAR, then the bank’s request will, presumably, be approved.
There’s reason to believe the participating banks in this year’s stress tests will seek permission to release an increasingly large wave of capital. Banks have more capital than they know what to do with right now, which causes consternation because it suppresses return on equity—a ratio of earnings over equity. And last year’s corporate income tax cut will only further fuel the buildup going forward, as profits throughout the industry are expected to climb by as much as 20 percent.
We probably won’t know exactly how much capital the SIFIs as a group plan to return over the next 12 months until, at the soonest, second-quarter earnings are reported in July. But early indications suggest a windfall from most banks. Immediately after CCAR results were released on June 28, for example, Bank of America Corp. said it will increase its dividend by 25 percent and repurchase $20.6 billion worth of stock over the next four quarters, nearly double its repurchase request over last year.
The importance of capital allocation can’t be overstated. It’s one of the most effective ways for a bank to differentiate its performance. Running a prudent and efficient operation is necessary to maximize profits, but if a bank wants to maximize total shareholder return as well, it must also allocate those profits in a way that creates shareholder value.
One way to do so is to repurchase stock at no more than a modest premium to book value. This is easier said than done, however. The only time banks tend to trade for sufficiently low multiples to book value is when the industry is experiencing a crisis, which also happens to be when banks prefer to hoard capital instead of return it to shareholders.
As a result, the best way to add value through capital allocation is generally to use excess capital to make acquisitions. And not just any ole’ acquisition will do. For an acquisition to create value, it must be accretive to a bank’s earnings per share, book value per share or both, either immediately or over a relatively brief period of time.
If you look at the two best-performing publicly traded banks since 1980, measured by total shareholder return, this is the strategy they have followed. M&T Bank, a $119 billion asset bank based in Buffalo, New York, has made 23 acquisitions since then, typically doing so at a discount to prevailing valuations. And Glacier Bancorp, a $12 billion asset bank based in Kalispell, Montana, has bolstered its returns with two dozen bank acquisitions throughout the Rocky Mountain region.
The point is that capital allocation shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you want to earn superior returns, the process of allocating capital must be approached with the same seriousness as the two other pillars of extraordinary performance—prudence and efficiency.