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Federal Reserve Won’t Release New Stress Tests, Say Some Banks Passed

In case you thought we were living in an open democracy, here’s a press release from the Federal Reserve on a recent round of stress tests commissioned to test banks.

The Federal Reserve on Friday announced it has completed the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR), its cross-institution study of the capital plans of the 19 largest U.S. bank holding companies.

As a result of the CCAR, some firms are expected to increase or restart dividend payments, buy back shares, or repay government capital. The Federal Reserve on Friday will discuss the reviews and its decisions with firms that requested a capital action. All 19 firms will receive more detailed assessments of their capital planning processes next month.

Notice who will not be receiving any instructions on the relative health of the 19 banks tested – the general public. The Fed will not release the results of the stress tests or even the methodology behind them. It will merely say that “some” firms can increase their dividends or buy back shares or repay the government. Within minutes of this announcement, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, BB&T, BNY Mellon and US Bancorp announced dividend increases. SunTrust Bank announced a buyback of shares.

The most that the Fed will say is that the stress tests constitute “a forward-looking, detailed evaluation of capital planning and stress scenario analysis.” That’s pretty much it. We have heard that the banking industry wrote their own stress tests for this evaluation. The reward at the end? The dividend increases, which will reward bank CEOs who were paid a lot of compensation in stock in recent years.

Even as ordinary investors look forward to the prospect of larger dividend payouts by the big banks, another group is poised for a rich payday: bank chief executives. In the next few days, the Federal Reserve is expected to give a handful of institutions, including JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, permission to pay higher dividends, another sign of the remarkable comeback of banks since the depths of the financial crisis.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, stands to eventually reap nearly $6 million a year in dividend payments from the stock he owns, an amount that equals almost a third of his total pay in 2010. Capital One’s chief executive, Richard D. Fairbank, could earn nearly $3 million a year as the credit card giant weighs a similar move.

I suppose the Fed will justify this by saying that they ordered dividends reduced in early 2009, and this just allows them to increase to a “natural” level. And maybe they’ll say that the introduction of advanced capital requirements and an improved landscape for the banks means that dividend increases are warranted. But the public still has no idea about the health of the banks, or whether any firms failed the stress tests (note that Citi and Bank of America have not raised dividends), or what the results looked like, or what was tested.

The extent of the regulatory capture is clear here. As the Congressional Oversight Panel’s Ted Kaufman said, “When you do something like the TARP, you create a moral hazard, because institutions believe they’re too big to fail.” That’s especially true when the follow-on regulatory environment is so favorable to them.

More from BBC.

Postscript: CEOs at the 50 largest companies took home $126 million in bonuses last year, the highest in three years and a 30% increase.

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David Dayen

David Dayen