Friday, March 6, 2009

Wells Fargo Joins the Crowd of Dividend Cutters

Wells Fargo was yet another financial company to cut dividends today. Dividend Growth Investor readers have been warned about this one in January and as late as this Wednesday. The company’s board of directors cut the payment to 0.05/share from 0.34 in an effort to retain $5 billion annually. The statement by the president and CEO of Wells Fargo is pretty interesting to read:

“This was a very difficult decision but it’s absolutely right for our Company and our shareholders because it will further strengthen our ability to grow market share and to continue our long track record of profitable growth,” said President and CEO John Stumpf. “We will return to a more normalized dividend level as soon as practical. We have among the most loyal shareholders in America – individuals and institutions alike – and we’ve always recognized the value of dividends. Operating results for the first two months of the year are strong. Our ability to grow market share in this environment and to benefit from new business opportunities remains second to none. Our merger with Wachovia is on track and we remain as optimistic as ever about its potential benefits for all our stakeholders.”

The company’s dividend cut marks the end of a brutal week for dividend cuts in the financial sector, which started with PNC cutting its dividend early in the week. After that it was HSBC (HBC), which also announced plans to raise $17.70 billion from shareholders through a rights issue. US Bancorp (USB) was next by cutting dividends by 88%. Wells Fargo’s statement is another slap in the face for shareholders, as the company, just like US Bancorp, announced that it could afford the current dividend, but chooses not to in order to bolster its balance sheet and take advantage of opportunities.

WFC was one of the first companies to receive bailout funds from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. This dividend achiever has increased dividends for 20 consecutive years. The previous dividend of $0.34/share was well covered by earnings. Despite the rally in the shares, I would consider seling into strength. One could never tell if the company needed to cut the dividend or cut it because it knew it could get away with it.

Financial stocks used to be great dividend investments, but not anymore.As a result of all the dividend cuts in the financial sector, dividend growth investors that sold after the dividend cuts are now underweight financials. I am beginning to wonder if dividend investors’ long-term results would suffer in the event that financial stocks experience a rapid recovery once the current recession is over. Both US Bancorp (USB) and Wells Fargo (WFC) have expressed confidence in their ability to increase dividend in the future. I would continue monitoring the activity in the financial sector and look for dividend increases there over the next few years.

Full Disclosure: None

Relevant Articles:

- Can USB and WFC maintain their current dividends?
- TARP is bad for dividend investors
- US Bancorp (USB) cuts its dividend by 88%
- Yet Another Financial Company Cutting Dividends

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