You may remember that about this time last year, the state’s investment of €7 billion in preference shares of the two main banks was regularly touted as a great investment, with the 8% dividend playing a big role in helping to reduce our budget deficit. The story in relation to these dividends has now gotten a bit complicated and it now appears that instead of getting €560 million this year, we’re perhaps getting nothing.
As discussed here before (here and here) the EU Commission does not like the idea of taxpayer money going into the banks only to be paid out to subordinated bonds. For this reason, the Commission has prevented AIB and Bank of Ireland from paying coupon payments on certain bonds. This has triggered “dividend stopper” clauses which prevent the banks from paying cash dividends on the government’s preference shares, which are due on February 20 in the case of Bank of Ireland and May 13 in the case of AIB. This in turn would trigger the right of the National Pensions Reserve Fund Commission (NPRFC) to acquire ordinary shares equivalent to the amount of the dividend. And €560 million is a large amount of money relative to the current stock market capitalizations for these banks.
However, it turns out that NTMA are not keen on collecting these shares for the taxpayer. Via Bloomberg, the Irish Times reports:
Speaking at a Dáil committee in Dublin today, Mr Corrigan said failure to pay the coupon won’t automatically lead the government to take a bigger stake in the lenders. The NTMA chief executive said he would prefer the banks to pay the coupon in cash rather than shares. He said he is “in no rush” to collect the shares, and will await a European Union decision on the coupon before deciding how to proceed.
In relation to not being in a rush, it is true that the NTMA don’t have to take the shares. The original announcement stated:
Dividend: Fixed dividend of 8%, payable annually. Dividends payable in cash at the discretion of the bank. If cash dividend not paid, then ordinary shares are issued in lieu at a time no later than the date on which the bank subsequently pays a cash dividend on other Core Tier 1 capital.
Since the banks are not currently paying out dividends on ordinary shares, then it is clear that the shares don’t have to be issued, though it is less clear as to who makes the decision to get shares issued—the banks or the government.
It would be interesting to know the exact nature of this EU decision-making process that Mister Corrigan referred to. The Commission has already made its judgment on the payments to subdebt holders and it has adopted a consistent stance on this issue with other EU banks. There doesn’t seem to have been any conversion of the subdebt to some other form of claim that wouldn’t have a dividend stopper. So what exactly are we waiting for? A bit of clarity on this would be nice.