Bank of America Could Have Paid Shareholders

NEW YORK ( TheStreet)-- Bank of America ( BAC) could conceivably have won permission from the Federal Reserve to raise its dividend or buy back stock during the just-completed 2012 "stress test," but chose not to, likely improving management's standing in the eyes of regulators, according to an analyst report published Wednesday.

Bank of America was one of 15 banks that passed the test by demonstrating that, according to the Fed's projections, the stress scenario would not cause capital levels to fall below the minimum levels established by the regulator.

But while peers including JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) and Wells Fargo ( WFC), announced following the test that they would raise payouts to shareholders, Bank of America did not. Bank officials had said prior to the announcement of the test results that they would not seek permission for capital returns, though some observers had expected a surprise announcement of a dividend hike after the test.

The Federal Reserve "stress test," or Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR), is an annual test of the balance sheets of banks with more than $50 billion in assets. The test, mandated by 2010 Dodd Frank financial reform legislation, is meant to predict the ability of the largest U.S. banks to withstand an economic and market meltdown worse than that experienced after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

Bank of America "appeared to have room to drive some capital returns to shareholders under the 2012 CCAR process and yet neglected to request any increases," wrote Wells Fargo analyst Matt Burnell.

Burnell notes Bank of America had "excess capital" of .9% or $1.10 per share. However, since the bank was turned down for a capital increase a year ago, Burnell believes management wanted to exercise caution this time around. He believes that strategy "has likely served to bolster management's credibility in the latest round," giving the bank "enhanced flexibility to request capital returns starting in 2013, if current operating trends continue."

Bank of America shares rallied late in the trading day Tuesday after JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) surprised the markets with an early announcement that it would raise its quarterly dividend to 30 cents from 25 cents. The bank's shares were higher in pre-market trading again on Wednesday, even as those of some other banks, such as Citigroup ( C), were sharply lower.

Citigroup had sought permission for capital returns but was turned down by regulators.

Bank of America spokesmen did not respond to an email message on Wednesday seeking comment on the stress test and the bank's capital plans.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York. Follow this writer on Twitter.
Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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