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Turning Off the Dividend Spigot

As European regulators search for solutions to poor bank performance, they should consider banks’ revenue distribution as part of the problem. If under-capitalized banks had not been paying out dividends in recent years, they would have retained enough equity to reduce today's capital shortfalls significantly.

NEW YORK – European banks’ high litigation and restructuring costs have resulted in major losses on their books and abysmal stock-market performance. As the industry and European regulators now reflect on this dismal state of affairs and search for solutions, they should consider banks’ revenue distribution – including employee bonuses and shareholder dividends – as part of the problem.

Revenue distribution is one primary reason for European banks’ capital shortfalls. To understand why, we should look back to October 2014, when the European Banking Authority began balance-sheet stress tests for the eurozone’s largest 123 banks and found a capital shortfall of €25 billion ($28 billion) in all of them.

At the time, the EBA required the banks to devise plans to address their respective shortfalls within 6-9 months. Some banks took action and raised equity through rights issues, sometimes with substantial help from governments. But most banks mollified regulators by simply shedding riskier assets to improve their capital ratios.

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