Bank of America's surprise move to pay back $45 billion in federal bailout money ratchets up pressure on rivals Wells Fargo and Citigroup to get out from under the government's thumb. But don't expect it to happen anytime soon.
That's because many banks, including Citi and Wells Fargo, still face big losses on loans as people fall behind on bills — losses that could further erode their capital and put them in danger.
Moreover, the government may be reluctant to let them repay until they're confident that no further assistance will be needed. If the economy were to seriously weaken again, the government could be forced to inject more money into big banks.
Bank of America Corp. said Thursday it has raised $19.29 billion from a securities offering that, along with available cash, will be used to repay the money it received during the height of the credit crisis last year. It would become the first of seven companies that received "exceptional" government assistance — bailout funds beyond the initial injections from the Troubled Asset Relief Program — to pay back taxpayers in full.
In doing so, Bank of America would join JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group as large banks that have cut ties with the government — and broken free of limits on executive compensation and other restrictions. While those banks also have had steep loan losses, they've been able to offset much of the damage with strong profits in their trading divisions.
Bank of America in particular has been aided by profit from its wealth management business, which includes the bank's Merrill Lynch division.
The TARP repayment helps the Charlotte, N.C., bank's efforts to recruit a successor to CEO Ken Lewis, who announced last fall that he planned to retire on Dec. 31.
But it also widens the competitive gap between banks that have repaid TARP funds and those that haven't, said Douglas Elliott, a former investment banker at J.P. Morgan who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"It puts more pressure on Citigroup and Wells to pay it back when they can — which is good," Elliott said. "We want them to be under pressure to act."
Like other big banks, Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. have been beset by losses on loans from mortgages to credit cards as a growing number of consumers struggle to pay off debt. Citigroup reported $8 billion in loan losses in the third quarter compared with $5.1 billion for Wells Fargo.
Citigroup has received $45 billion in federal aid and guarantees to protect against losses on more than $300 billion in risky assets. In return, the government got a 34 percent ownership stake in the banking giant.
Wells Fargo has received $25 billion in aid. Neither bank has given a timetable for repaying taxpayers.
Wells Fargo "will work closely with our regulators to determine the appropriate time to repay the government's investment ... while maintaining strong capital levels," spokeswoman Julia Tunis Bernard said.
Citigroup declined to comment.
Appearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said regulators decided it was "safe and reasonable and appropriate" for Bank of America to repay its bailout funds.
The bank has paid $2.54 billion to the government so far in dividends on the TARP money. The bank said it is not yet exercising its right to repurchase warrants that the government received in return for the bailout money. Warrants are financial instruments that allow the holder to buy stock in the future at a fixed price.
The Treasury Department can negotiate a price for the warrants with Bank of America or put them up for auction. Treasury this week is auctioning warrants of Capital One Financial Corp., and said it also will auction warrants for JPMorgan Chase & Co. and TCF Financial Corp. Proceeds from the sale will give taxpayers an additional return beyond the dividend payments already received.
Based on Bank of America's current stock price, the government could receive anywhere between $943 million and $2.5 billion for its warrants, said Linus Wilson, finance professor at the University of Louisiana.
Speaking to lawmakers, Bernanke said the TARP program had "mostly served its purpose" in stabilizing the U.S. banking system and that the time had come "to think about unwinding that program."
But there are plenty of obstacles to discourage the government from doing that, financial experts say. For starters, loan losses at commercial banks are growing as rising unemployment pushes more home and business owners into default.
Moody's Investors Service said this week that U.S. banks have so far only recognized 40 percent of the loan losses they will take between 2008 and 2010. Moody's estimates that total loan losses will reach $536 billion for the three-year period ending in 2010.
Banks' unwillingness to recognize the full extent of their loan losses makes it unreasonable to consider pulling government support from the banking system, said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics.
For Citigroup, raising the equity needed to repay TARP funds would be "prohibitively expensive" given its status as the most badly damaged bank during the crisis, Whalen said.
"They're not going to go there. They can't," he said.
Another factor that could weigh on the TARP's future is its ultimate cost to taxpayers. Treasury has spent about $450 billion under the TARP program, including around $290 billion poured into banks. As of Oct. 31, nearly 50 financial companies have returned a total of $72.3 billion in bailout money. They have also paid the Treasury $7 billion in dividends.
Bernanke on Thursday predicted the government would eventually come "close to break even" on its bank investments.
"Considering what was achieved ... that outcome would be a good outcome," he said.