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By Jennifer Yousfi
Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) just became the latest in a string of hard-hit financial firms to slash its dividend to preserve much-needed cash.
Yesterday (Wednesday),the Ohio-based regional bank slashed its dividend to 15 cents down from 44 cents, becoming the 17th company to reduce or eliminate its dividend completely this year, Bloomberg News reported.
Fifth Third certainly wasn't the first bank to have to resort to this unpopular measure, nor will it be the last.
Financial firms of every stripe have taken a beating from the subprime mortgage crisis that has accounted for $396 billion in write-downs so far. From national consumer banks such as Wachovia Corp. (WB) to the regional banks such as Fifth Third, everyone's feeling the pinch. As stock prices continue to plunge and liquidity becomes alarmingly scarce, the banks have to evaluate how they're going to survive until the economy turns around.
Over $300 billion in emergency capital infusions have rolled in so far, many of those investments coming from preferred stock sales to foreign sovereign wealth funds (SWFs). As much as $65 billion more may still be needed according to a recent research report from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) analysts.
But while the banks desperately need the cash, it's really bad news for common shareholders as well. Those preferred shares were sold with a hefty yield of their own and preferred stockholders have first dibs on the financial firms' dwindling revenue streams.
High Yields are Bad?
It used to be that a juicy yield was a good thing in a stock because it meant a nice dividend and a steady income stream. But with banks struggling to maintain capital requirements as credit lending continues to tighten and income from operations declines, financial stocks are taking a beating. Declining share prices lead to higher yields.
Historically, bank stocks have yielded around 3% to 4%, Chief Executive Officer Gary Townsend, of Hill-Townsend Capital in Chevy Chase, Md., told Fortune in a recent interview. But many financial stocks punished by the recent market now have yields in the high single digits. Those firms have the potential for a dividend decrease.
"When you get to about 8%, that speculation becomes quite pronounced," said Townsend, a former Wall Street bank analyst.
And just because a bank has already slashed its dividend doesn't mean it won't be forced to reduce it even lower.
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Many feel that Bank of America Corp. (BAC) will be the next to fall as it struggles with its takeover of subprime villain, Countrywide Financial Corp. (CFC). With a fat quarterly dividend of 64 cents, Bank of America is yielding over 9% with a share price that has plunged over 30% year-to-date. Shares closed at $28.37 yesterday.
With a mean analyst estimate of just $2.74 earnings per share this fiscal year, according to MarketWatch data, Bank of America is going to be hard-pressed to come up with the cash to maintain its current dividend level of $2.56 annually.
But not everyone sees a dividend-cut in Bank of America's future.
Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY) analyst Meredith Whitney said she felt the national bank's dividend was safe after a recent chat she had with Chief Executive Ken Lewis. Whitney's opinion is nothing to sneeze at, as she was one of the first to predict the bearish turn in the financial sector. she feels Bank of America will be able to maintain its payout.
Safe Bank Bets
Does this mean all financial stocks are worthless? Not at all.
. In fact, over the past three years, this strategy has delivered double the return of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, according to research by professors at both American University and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
And the Oracle of Omaha has made some pretty shrewd banking investments, managing to steer clear of most of the subprime slime.
Berkshire Hathaway is the largest shareholder for U.S. Bancorp (USB), the sixth-largest domestic commercial bank. With a 43-cent quarterly dividend and a share price that is down only 5% year-to-date, the bank's stock currently yields 5.66%. Shares closed at $30.01 yesterday and have traded in a relatively tight, stable range of $27.86 to $35.25 in the past 52 weeks. And if Buffet's opinion isn't enough to convince you, Fortune recently named USB to its list of 40 best stocks for retirement.
Another Berkshire Hathaway holding is Buffalo-based regional bank, M&T Bank Corp. (MTB). It has a juicy 70-cent quarterly dividend and currently yields 3.7%.
With a close yesterday of $75.89, it's a bit further off of its 52-week high of $115.81 than U.S. Bancorp, but still up from its 52-week low of $70.49. With a mean analyst estimate of $6.73 earnings per share for this fiscal year according to MarketWatch data, and a balance sheet that hasn't suffered too badly from the subprime mess, M&T should have enough cash to maintain its quarterly payout.
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