In this March 13, 2012 photo, trader John Bishop works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Federal Reserve conducted a series of stress tests on several major American banks and bank holding companies earlier this week, and most of the banks passed with flying colors. J.P. Morgan Chase promptly announced a $15 billion stock buyback program, Morgan Stanley said it was going to go ahead and buy up an additional 14 percent of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, and US Bancorp raised its dividend by a whopping 56 percent. Some banks did get some bad news, but after a 2011 in which the financial sector was one of the weakest areas of the market, this week’s results were good news indeed for the nation’s beleaguered banks. What we may have seen this week was America’s financial sector turning a long-awaited corner.

There’s no doubt that in an otherwise flat year for stocks, 2011 was uniquely miserable for the financial sector.  In the S&P 500, financials were one of only two sectors that lost ground on the year (materials was the other), dropping by more than 17 percent. The single biggest loser among the S&P’s 500 stocks was Bank of America, which lost 58 percent of its value. Mutual funds that focused on financials were also hit hard: ProFunds’ Financials UltraSector dropped 24 percent, while Schwab’s Financial Services Fund dropped 14 percent.

What caused the financial sector to underperform the rest of the market so badly? With interest rates at historically low levels and lending standards remaining tightened, banks are still struggling to make profits. The precarious situation in Europe has also limited the larger banks that make much of their money overseas.

A closer look

What the stress tests were designed to reveal was whether the banks were strong enough to withstand another financial meltdown. Basically, the regulators simulated another financial crisis, and noted the amount of capital the banks would then have on hand. The tests offered up a scenario in which the nation had to endure an unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 21 percent decline in housing prices and a 50 percent drop in equity prices. The idea is that banks should still have enough money to lend businesses in that kind of an economic downturn, so we don’t suffer through the kind of credit freeze that exacerbated the last recession.

It turns out that the Federal Reserve’s previous round of stress tests helped the banks get through this one. As a result of the earlier tests, lenders were asked to raise an additional $75 billion in capital, while no funds had to be raised after the most recent round. All told, the regulators found that banks had increased their Tier 1 common capital — reserves kept on hand in order to absorb losses — by 81 percent. Of the 19 bank holding companies involved in the stress tests, 15 passed. The four that didn’t were SunTrust Banks, MetLife, Citigroup, and Ally Financial.

[See: MetLife Statement on Fed's Rejection of Its Capital Distribution Plan]

JP Morgan Chase was the immediate winner in all of this. The $15 billion repurchase plan it announced would be enough for the firm to buy back around 370 million shares or 9.7 percent of shares outstanding. JP Morgan Chase, which surpassed Bank of America late last year to become the largest American bank by assets and snapped up Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual during the financial collapse, lost more than 20 percent of its value in 2011. But on Tuesday, the stock jumped two points immediately after the stress test results and buyback announcement were made public, and has continued upward, making back everything it had lost in 2011.

As soon as Morgan Stanley passed the stress test, the company announced it would continue its purchase of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney stock. (Citigroup, Smith Barney’s former owner, continues to hold most of the minority stake.) Morgan Stanley’s stock had lost about 44 percent of its value in 2011, but has climbed steadily so far in 2012, rising about 21 percent.

The year ahead

US Bancorp, which survived 2011 with its stock pretty much flat, announced it was boosting its dividend by 56 percent after passing the stress test. It’s up about 15 percent already in 2012. BB&T Corp., another stock that went mostly sideways in 2011, announced plans to raise its dividend by 4 cents, and its stock is up 20 percent this year.

Last year marked the first time since the crisis that several banks were allowed to raise dividends. In a report last month, Credit Suisse analysts estimated U.S. banks could end up doubling their payouts to shareholders. They project an average of 47 percent of their earnings in 2012, up from 23 percent last year.

Already in 2012, S&P’s financial sector has returned 18.4 percent, which is a higher percentage than it lost in all of the disastrous 2011. If the results of the stress tests can be seen as the official clean bill of health for America’s financial industry, we could see banking stocks continue to be strong throughout the remainder of 2012.