Magazine article American Banker

Senate Poised to Cut Fed Dividend as Part of Highway Bill

Magazine article American Banker

Senate Poised to Cut Fed Dividend as Part of Highway Bill

Article excerpt

Byline: John Heltman

WASHINGTON -- The Senate began debate Thursday on a bill that includes a provision that would cut the dividend that member banks receive from the Federal Reserve System, a measure that banks, regulators and lawmakers alike are calling shortsighted.

The overall highway transportation bill cleared a key procedural vote on Wednesday after the Senate voted 62 to 36 to begin debate on the bill. That came just a day after Senate leaders had failed to win the necessary support to invoke cloture.

But the financial services industry is focused primarily on an obscure provision that would slash the dividend for member banks' stock in the Federal Reserve System to 1.5% from 6% for all member banks with more than $1 billion in assets. The measure is estimated to generate around $1.7 billion in annual revenue and is designed to help pay for the costs of the highway transportation bill.

But federal regulators have warned cutting the dividend may be a mistake.

"I would be concerned about reducing the dividend could have unintended consequences for banks' willingness to be part of the Federal Reserve system, and this might particularly apply to smaller institutions," Fed Chair Janet Yellen said last week. "I would say that this is a change to the law that could conceivably have unintended consequences and I think it deserves some serious thought and analysis."

Federal law requires Fed-member banks to buy a set amount of stock in the Federal Reserve system. That stock's value doesn't change and may not be pledged or sold or otherwise touched. In exchange for effectively freezing the capital used to buy the stock, the Fed pays an annual dividend, which has been set at 6% since the central bank was established in 1913.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has similarly warned against cutting the dividend, saying that it made little sense to fund a surface transportation measure with dividends from the Federal Reserve.

"I think that's a pretty far reach, but, you know, people look for money anywhere they can get it," Shelby told Yellen. "That's something that I think we'd better be working together on, I hope."

The American Bankers Association, Financial Services Forum, the Clearing House Association, Financial Services Roundtable and Independent Community Bankers of America sent a letter last week to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., and lead panel Democrat Barbara Boxer, R-Calif., decrying the measure, saying that the Fed dividend is mandated by law and not a significant source of income for any bank. Cutting that dividend so drastically would have dire consequences on the financial sector, the groups said, and such a move should at least be debated and analyzed before becoming law. …

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