In the last few days, we have seen announcement by both the UK and US governments of their intent to invest hundreds of billions into their biggest banks. In both plans, the investment will be in preferred stock in the banks, and the announcements have described them as investments in equity. But is preferred stock equity? That is a question that is not new but acquires fresh urgency, with these infusions.
Preferred stock is a hybrid security, sharing some characteristics with equity and some with debt. Like equity, it has a perpetual life and the dividends can be skipped, if a firm is in financial trouble, without the risk of default. Unlike equity, the preferred dividend is usually fixed at the time o the issue (as a percent of the face value of the preferred stock) and is often cumulative; failure to pay dividends one year is compensated for by paying the dividends in the next year. In fact, investing in preferred stock is more akin to investing in a bond than stock, with almost all of the returns coming from the dividends. There is one final confounding factor. While interest payment on debt are tax deductible, preferred dividends are not. In my discounted cash flow valuations, I have always considered preferred stock to be more debt than equity, and very expensive debt at that, since it does not provide a tax deduction.
Among US companies, the biggest issuers of preferred stock are the financial service companies (banks, insurance companies) and there is a simple reason for it. While it may be more expensive than conventional debt, it is counted as equity by the regulatory authorities while computing capital ratios for banks.
So what is the bottom line of these capital infusions by the governments for existing equity investors in the banks receiving the infusions? If I were an investor in a US bank receiving the infusion, I am concerned about the effect of the preferred dividends that the banks have to pay for the foreseeable future out of after-tax earnings, which will lower my earnings and returns on equity going forward on common stock. However, given that the bank will have to raise capital to cover it's mistakes from the last few years, and that the capital will not come easily in this market (Think of the problems Bank of America had last week when it tried to raise $ 10 billion), I will accept this bargain. If I were an investor in a UK bank receiving capital from the British government, I am not so sure that this works in my favor. The British government plan is much more punitive to common stockholders; the dividend rate is set much higher, the banks will not be allowed to pay common dividends until they pay off the preferred stock and the government looks like it will take a much more active role in the way the banks are run. In other words, the British preferred stock infusion seems to encroach more on common equity than the US preferred stock infusion. Not surprisingly, the British banks that are prime targets for the infusion (Lloyds, HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland) have seen their stock prices drop since the plan was announced, whereas the US banks have seen marginal improvements in the stock price.