Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Will US Bancorp cut its dividend?

I've been following US Bancorp (USB) pretty closely through this credit crisis -- thanks to Jim Jubak. He thinks it is one of the few banks that will emerge from this crisis victorious, and I tend to agree with him.

The stock currently yields ~12%, but much of that is due to the fear of a dividend cut caused by the most recent earnings release. Jim Jubak's comments are below.

Will US Bancorp follow the lead of so many of its peers in the banking industry and cut its dividend? The question isn't academic to me: I had added this stock to Jubak's Picks in April 2008 because it then paid better than 5%.

Since the company's Jan. 21 announcement on fourth-quarter earnings, a majority of investors on Wall Street have been thinking the dividend is headed for a cut. A stock-price drop of 12.5% on Jan. 22 left the yield on the shares at 12.1%. You don't see that kind of a yield on a bank stock unless the market is convinced the company will cut its payout.

I can certainly see why investors think that. The bank didn't exactly give a ringing defense of the dividend in its earnings conference call. Executives said the company believes it will be able to cover the dividend from earnings in 2009 but noted that it reviews the dividend every 90 days -- which puts the next review in March -- and that the bank has no intention of continuing the current dividend if earnings don't cover the payout.

The real issue then, as the company said in its statement, is earnings for the rest of 2009. On Jan. 21, US Bancorp reported earnings of 15 cents a share. That's a profit -- unusual for a bank these days -- but still 7 cents a share below what Wall Street had expected. The problems? There were $253 million in losses on securities and a $635 million increase in provision for credit losses. All in all, charges and losses chopped 34 cents a share out of earnings.

It's also clear that the bank's business, like that of all banks I know of, is still getting worse. Nonperforming assets climbed to 1.14% in December, and the bank said it anticipated that nonperforming assets -- that is, loans that the bank can't collect on in a timely fashion -- will continue to climb in 2009. It's cold comfort to investors that the bank's performance continues to be so much better than other banks'. The increase in nonperforming assets to 1.14% in December is only a modest increase from the 0.88% in September. That indicates the bank's lending standards continue to hold up to a very difficult economy.

The bank's operating results, in fact, were quite impressive. Loans grew 17% (12.7% excluding acquisitions) and deposits 15.2% (9.6% excluding acquisitions) from the fourth quarter of 2007. (In November 2008, the company acquired Downey Savings and Loan and PFF Bank and Trust from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) Net interest income grew 22.6%. Tier 1 capital remained at a strong 10.6%.

So will US Bancorp cut the dividend or not? Unfortunately, it's a danger and, also unfortunately, uncertain. It depends on how long the economy struggles and how big the losses get on the bank's portfolio of loans. I still think US Bancorp will be a winner in the current crisis, and this quarter's results are evidence that the bank is picking up loan and deposit volume as customers opt for the bank's relative safety.
Fed looks like one more shaky bank
Jubak's Journal, 1/23/2009 12:01 AM ET