The nation’s biggest banks can get back to business as usual.
The Federal Reserve said on Thursday that Wall Street lenders were most likely strong enough to fully resume shareholder payouts after the regulator lifted pandemic-related restrictions — the latest sign that the economy is returning to normal.
“The banking system is strongly positioned to support the ongoing recovery,” the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, Randal K. Quarles, said in a statement.
That means the nation’s biggest lenders — including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America — can increase the amount they pay out to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends.
Industry representatives immediately took a victory lap.
“The strength and resiliency of the nation’s largest banks have been reconfirmed,” Kevin Fromer, the chief executive of the Financial Services Forum, said in a statement. The resumption of “reasonable” dividends and buybacks would support the economy’s recovery, said Mr. Fromer, whose group represents the leaders of the eight largest U.S. banks.
The Federal Reserve imposed temporary limits on dividends and buybacks last year as a way to protect against loan losses that could have threatened the financial system. But government efforts to prop up the economy, including enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments, meant that such losses never emerged. Indeed, Americans used some of that money to pay down debts and are, overall, comparatively flush and eager to spend after a year of lockdowns.
In March, the Fed’s governors unanimously approved plans to end the buyback and dividend limits after the second quarter as long as banks passed their so-called stress tests — the annual evaluations of banks with $100 billion or more in assets. The test were established by the Dodd-Frank reform law established after the 2008 financial crisis.
On Thursday, the Fed said the banks had passed the test, which assessed how they would fare under dire situations such as a severe global recession punctuated by major stress in commercial real estate and corporate debt markets alongside a 55 percent decline in equity prices. That hypothetical case would trigger collective losses of $470 billion among the 23 large banks, with nearly $160 billion of the losses coming from commercial real estate and corporate loans, the Fed said. While the banks’ capital ratios would fall to 10.6 percent under that scenario, that is still more than double the lowest required ratio.
The stringent conditions in the stress tests contrast with a more rosy reality: U.S. lenders have maintained a firm footing during the pandemic, racking up profits and building up reserves in preparation for a torrent of losses that so far hasn’t materialized. Bank stocks have jumped about 28 percent since January as a speedy vaccine rollout bolstered economic activity.
If a bank’s capital dips below certain levels in the tests, the Fed can restrict it from paying out money to shareholders. But a New York Times analysis of results suggested that none of the six largest banks were close to facing such restrictions.
The banks’ passing grades prompted criticism that the test had been too easy.
“I’m losing my faith in the stress tests,” said Sheila Bair, who was head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation during the financial crisis. She pointed out that the tests are predictable because they have been made more transparent, and that the scenarios are reflective of the 2008 meltdown — not emerging risks, like climate change.
“They need to get a little more creative,” she said. “They’re looking in the rearview mirror — that’s the problem.”
Lenders are expected to announce their capital plans on Monday afternoon, according to the Fed. The lag will allow banks to compare their own analyses with the Fed’s and potentially revise their payout proposals.
“The expectations have been high regarding payouts,” said Ian Katz, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, a research firm in Washington. “I think they’re going to meet those expectations, and they’ve gotten the green light to do that.”
Mayra Rodríguez Valladares, a financial risk consultant who trains bankers and regulators, said she expected banks to boost their dividend payouts and share buybacks — although she believed doing so would be premature.
“We still do not know how many corporate or individual defaults are coming our way once all stimulus and Fed programs to provide respite during Covid end,” Ms. Rodríguez Valladares said. “Banks should not be excessive in dividend payouts and should make sure that they are well above minimum capital levels to protect them if defaults rise later in the year.”
Gregg Gelzinis, associate director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, added that bigger dividends and buybacks wouldn’t bolster the economy.
“That’s money that could have been used to expand lending to businesses and households, aiding the recovery,” he said.
But the Bank Policy Institute, an industry group, said large lenders were on solid ground to help the economy bounce back from the past year’s upheaval.
Large banks “remain in an excellent position to continue to support the economic recovery as loan demand strengthens,” said Francisco Covas, the institute’s executive vice president.
Future tests, however, may not be so forgiving.
Mr. Quarles was appointed vice chair for supervision by President Donald J. Trump, and his term will expire in mid-October. The next time the banks go through their annual checkups, they most likely will be facing scenarios approved by different leadership.
Isaac Boltansky, the director of policy research at the research and trading firm Compass Point, said the change will introduce an element of uncertainty for banks, who might encounter more strenuous scenarios related to the kinds of risks Ms. Bair said could lie ahead.
“Where I think it is a little bit hazier is what happens after this,” he said.