By Edward Hadas
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
In April, U.S. banks dusted off the dividend again, a trick they’d mostly abandoned during the financial crisis. JPMorgan Chase plans an 8-cent-per-share hike. Wells Fargo’s will be 5 cents. Same for Morgan Stanley. Bank of America will raise its dividend a penny. Some might celebrate the move: The banks are back! But there’s more to it. In this fairly anemic economy, dividends are yet another strategic, if counterintuitive, hedge that won’t get our loved and loathed financial institutions lending again anytime soon.
Across the political spectrum, there is a growing recognition that while short-term battles over government spending are important, they would be far less ferocious and intense if our economy were growing at a faster clip. But while conservatives and liberals alike clamor for more growth, they disagree about how to produce it. The key is unleashing what the economist Joseph Berliner once called the “Invisible Foot,” the neglected counterpart to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”
President Barack Obama is seeking input from Corporate America on the so-called fiscal cliff. But whatever company honchos may be saying about the risk of recession in 2013 if tax hikes and spending cuts kick in on Jan. 1, it looks as if they actually fear higher taxes more than a downturn.
As tens of thousands in the New York metropolitan area remain powerless amid a massive cleanup campaign after Hurricane Sandy hit the region, Consolidated Edison, the utility that powers about 3.3 million customers in New York City and Westchester County, reported earnings and reaffirmed its guidance for 2012. Kevin Burke, Con Ed’s chairman and chief executive officer, said that the company was devoting all its resources to aiding Sandy’s victims. The company’s bottom line, though, seems secure, despite the costs of cleanup.
For income-focused investors, the choice between stocks and corporate bonds has been a no-brainer in recent years. In a volatile world, corporate debt tends to be less sensitive to market gyrations and also has offered better yields -- last year non-financial European corporate bonds provided a yield pickup of 73 basis points above stocks, Morgan Stanley calculates.
On the basis of "stress tests" it ran, the Federal Reserve has given permission to most of the largest U.S. banks to "return capital" to their shareholders. JPMorgan Chase announced that it would buy back as much as $15 billion of its stock and raise its quarterly dividend to 30 cents a share, up from 25 cents a share.