(Bloomberg Opinion) -- While their peers in other countries weathered a season in hell after the 2008 financial crisis, Australian banks partied.
Spared the recession that devastated lenders elsewhere, valuations soared to as much as three times book value — extraordinary levels when most banks in developed countries were trading at a discount to book.
At one point in 2011, all of the country’s big four banks (Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp., National Australia Bank Ltd. and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.) were worth more than Bank of America Corp. in terms of market capitalization. Now, the U.S. lender is worth more than all four — put together.
The road to the dismal present has been paved with money-laundering scandals, government inquiries, super-taxes, a housing market downturn and of course the coronavirus, but it’s another factor that has been most crucial: dividends.
Bank valuations, after all, aren’t a disinterested vote on the credit quality of a company. Instead, they’re shareholders’ best guess of the current value of future payouts, adjusted for the risk that the share price itself may rise or fall.
That’s been particularly important in Australia, thanks to the outsize influence of individuals managing their own retirement savings through so-called self-managed superannuation. In most of the world, fund managers focused on capital growth dominate the stock market, to the extent that many tech companies treat paying cash back to shareholders as a failure of imagination. In Australia, the retirement savers who make up a fifth of the stock market prize a steady and stable income, so generous dividend-payers like the country’s banks have consequently done well.
Even when its valuation peaked at three times book in 2015, Commonwealth Bank, the biggest of the four, was still paying out dividends equivalent to more than 6% of its share price. Australian banks were offering all the income security of owning a bond, but with equity-style returns.
There was just one problem. Much though they may have behaved like bonds to their investors, Australian bank shares were equity all along — and with the party finally ending, it’s shareholders who are ultimately taking the hit. On Monday, Westpac joined ANZ in deferring its decision about whether to make a payout this year. NAB went one step further last week, cutting its payout by about two-thirds and tapping shareholders for cash by selling A$3.5 billion ($2.2 billion) in new stock.
It’s a sign of how crucial payouts have become to Australian bank shareholders that even with an unemployment rate tipped to hit 10% this year, both Westpac and ANZ are presenting their moves as delayed decisions rather than outright cancellations. Even in a crisis, giving up the gospel of dividends risks breaking the implicit contract between management and shareholders that’s supported valuations (and paid for executives’ Maseratis) for a generation.
The trouble is, shareholders are already voting with their feet. Price-book valuations have slumped to positively European levels; only Commonwealth Bank is now valued at a premium to its net assets. Unlike other countries, which have spent more than a decade deleveraging, Australian household debt was at record levels relative to income just before the coronavirus struck.
As rising unemployment and falling property prices eat into borrowers’ ability to repay, investors are (rightly) making the assessment that the first call on banks’ cash for the foreseeable future is likely to be funding defaulted loans. Next will be fines, like the A$1.06 billion Westpac set aside Monday for dealing with a money-laundering case.
The silver lining is that those plunging share prices are making dividends, in isolation, look more attractive than ever. If the coronavirus downturn proves less drastic than feared and Westpac ends up paying out full-year cash in line with last year’s, it would be yielding around 11% at current share prices — not bad at a time when its best one-year term deposit account is paying 1.2%.
It’s a mark of how bad things have gotten for Australian banks that even the perennial promise of payouts isn’t enough to tempt shareholders back this time.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
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