Europe should extend its de-facto ban on bank dividends by six months, a top official at the European Central Bank’s (ECB) supervisory arm said, casting a shadow over investors’ hopes for a return to payouts early next year.
The comments come as big banks across Europe are facing fraught times, with regulators at the ECB and the Bank of England (BOE) preparing to decide in coming weeks whether and how to lift their recommendations on payouts. Shareholder dividends were effectively frozen in March in a trade-off for unprecedented regulatory relief and government loan guarantees, yet bankers have subsequently slammed them as doing more harm than good.
Speaking in an interview ahead of the long-awaited decision this month, Ed Sibley, a member of the ECB’s supervisory board, said continued uncertainty, a need to preserve capital for lending and reputational issues for banks all speak in favor of extending the regulator’s existing recommendation. The question is how to implement it in practice, because the ECB doesn’t have the powers to enforce a blanket ban over mounting objection by lenders.
“Overall, we would be better if we were to hold off for another six months,” said Sibley, who is also a deputy governor at the Central Bank of Ireland. “Whether we can practically do that is a real challenge.”
The BOE and ECB have said they will announce their decisions on dividends by the end of the year. Sibley didn’t say how many supervisory board members share his views. “We’ve been having a really good discussion about it,” he said. “It’s not something we’ve been going at in a blasé kind of way.”
Regulators were expected to get key input when the ECB released its economic projections, alongside its latest monetary policy decision. The BOE also published its Financial Stability Report.
“That will factor into our thinking, but there are lots of other things we need to think about as well,” said Sibley. “There are significant weaknesses in lots of banks’ ability to demonstrate to us that their planning is effective from a capital management perspective.”
The ECB recommended earlier this year that banks not pay dividends or buy back shares at least through the end of 2020. The central bank can’t order an industry-wide ban, yet big banks fell in line after chief watchdog Andrea Enria said he could impose legally-binding measures on an individual basis.
As the pandemic progressed and lenders largely managed to deal with the fallout, some of the banks hardest-hit by the dividend suspension have become more vocal in demanding a return to payouts. Societe Generale Chairman Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi and his counterpart at Banco Santander SA, Ana Botin, have warned that the ban could backfire by making loans more expensive and even cutting banks off from funds provided by investors.
Sibley acknowledged that banks need to be able to pay dividends to access capital markets. Still, “some of the lobbying is a little tone deaf, especially with the level of fiscal and regulatory support that has gone into the economy,” he said.
Many banks have seen their share prices slump, especially when compared with the US.