16 May 2009

Getting Out From Under the TARP

I got a letter from BB&T last week, an actual paper letter, on account of owning a couple of shares of their stock. I had already heard the news that they planned to cut their dividend and issue between $1.5 and $1.7 billion in new stock to get out of TARP, but struck me as interesting that they bothered to send out notices, in the form of a letter from the CEO, to all shareholders of record.

The letter is available online here (PDF).

Most news coverage of BB&T’s decision to repay TARP has focused on the dividend reduction, and a remark by CEO Kelly King that it “marks the worst day in my 37 year career.” However, I thought the second page of the letter was really the most interesting:

Many of you have asked why we agreed to participate in the Capital Purchase Program last November. Frankly, we did not need or want the investment, but our regulators urged us along with other healthy banks to participate for the purpose of increasing lending to improve economic conditions.

Them’s fighting words right there, or at least they are by the admittedly low standards of a corporate shareholder communique. For a few months now, rumors have been circulating that healthy banks – like BB&T – were essentially forced or otherwise pressured by regulators to participate in TARP, in order to make it seem less like the plague ward than it really was. This is the first written confirmation that I’ve seen from senior management at a ‘healthy’ bank basically confirming the worst of those rumors.

The key word is that executives at BB&T didn’t “want” the TARP money from the beginning, indicating they must have been pressured or coerced – given ‘an offer they could not refuse,’ perhaps – to take it anyway. The letter doesn’t get into exactly what form that coercion took, but I suspect in time more details, beyond what are already known, will come out. Doubtless it won’t look all good for the banks when it does; in the end all the majors caved, and when they complain Treasury will accuse them of hypocrisy: buying into the plan when the going was tough, but getting buyers’ remorse now that things are looking somewhat better. This is a legitimate accusation that they’ll have to work hard to defend against. The ultimate question will be what the consequences of not participating – essentially calling the Don’s bluff – would have been, and whether they would have been preferable to what actually occurred.

The government, it seems, is going to turn a fair profit on TARP at great expense to the investors in healthy banks. (The sick banks won’t really have lost money to TARP, at least not in the same way that banks like BB&T did, because they actually needed the capital infusion to stay alive; for them it was money well spent.) I think it’s too much to expect at this point that anything will happen to recoup any of BB&T’s TARP-related losses, either the direct ones in the form of interest payments to the government, or indirect ones like the reduced dividend (which arguably they might have to have done anyway, but perhaps not – now we’ll never know) and share dilution.

There’s not much of a silver lining, but hopefully it will prove to be a ‘learning experience,’ albeit an expensive one. After having been so painfully screwed, it’s doubtful that BB&T or any of the other ‘healthy’ banks will have anything to do with similar programs to TARP in the future; whatever coercion was required to buy their participation this time around, next time they will almost certainly be tougher sales.

TARP may not have injected needed capital into the healthy banks, but it may have given them something far more important in the long run: backbone.

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