UPDATE 3-Swedish bank dividends make light of European capital crunch
* Handelsbanken to pay 11.5 SEK/shr plus extra 5 SEK
* Compares with 10.8 SEK last year
* SEB to pay 4 SEK/shr vs 2.75 in 2012
* Handelsbanken Q4 op profit 4.46 bln SEK vs f'cast 4.4 bln
* SEB Q4 op profit 5.01 bln SEK vs f'cast 4.68 bln (Adds CEO, analyst quotes, share prices)
By Mia Shanley and Johan Ahlander
STOCKHOLM, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Swedish lenders Handelsbanken and SEB increased dividends for 2013, loosening the purse strings after building some of the strongest capital buffers among European banks and posting forecast-beating quarterly earnings.
Nordic banks were some of the earliest to raise capital after the financial crisis and have continued to strengthen their balance sheets while investors have been holding out for buybacks and higher dividends.
Handelsbanken shareholders were rewarded on Wednesday with an extra dividend while SEB announced a 45 percent increase to its annual payout, boosting the shares of the banks by 4 percent and 2.5 percent respectively.
"It sends an interesting message out to the market," UBS analyst Nick Davey said, referring to the Handelsbanken dividend. "... It isn't just regulatory tightening for ever."
Any rise in the proportion of earnings Swedish banks pay their shareholders - already averaging a chunky 66 percent - is in stark contrast to other parts of Europe. Britain's Lloyds scrapped its 2013 dividend while Switzerland's UBS is paying the equivalent to a 30 percent ratio.
But for all their capital strength, the outlook for Swedish lenders remains tainted by continuing weakness in Europe, where many EU banks are busy retaining earnings and even raising fresh capital ahead of stress tests designed to draw a line under the financial crisis.
Nordic banks have been helped by strong public finances in the region, but high household debt and weak housing markets are still a concern.
Though borrowing has yet to pick up, SEB Chief Executive Annika Falkengren believes there are reasons for optimism as consumers and companies start to spend again.
"Even though Europe is extremely challenging, there are some hints of life that we're very slowly coming out of the crisis," she told Reuters, adding that she is "on the verge of being optimistic".
Nordea and Swedbank were a little more cautious last week when they proposed full-year dividends below market forecasts, arguing that they had to be careful in the face of regulatory uncertainty and weak loan growth.
Swedish authorities, worried by the large size of the banking sector relative to its economy, have warned that banks will face tougher capital requirements for years to come, including tougher risk weightings for mortgages.
Though some regulatory uncertainty remains, Handelsbanken CEO Par Boman said he believes that his bank's buffers are robust, with a core Tier 1 capital ratio of nearly 19 percent.
Sweden currently requires its banks to hold 12 percent core Tier 1 capital, rising to 15 percent from 2015.
Some EU banks, meanwhile, are worried about being able to hit the European Banking Authority's target of 8 percent at the start of this year's stress tests.
Lenders including Deutsche Bank and Italy's Monte dei Paschi have moved early to bolster their balance sheets but there may be more to come. The Bank of Italy, for instance, has said some smaller Italian lenders may need an extra 1.2 billion euros in total.
There are no such fears at Handelsbanken and SEB, however. Asked if share buybacks are an option this year, Handelbanken CEO Boman said: "It's an alternative definitely ... But most of the investors prefer a cash dividend."
Handelsbanken said it would pay an extra dividend of 5 Swedish crowns per share on top of an ordinary dividend of 11.5 crowns for 2013, up from 10.8 crowns last year. That equates to a payout ratio of 73 percent.
SEB said it would pay out 4 crowns per share - a payout ratio of 59 percent.
Handelsbanken, which opened 28 new branches in Britain in 2013, reported fourth-quarter group operating profit up 13 percent to 4.46 billion crowns ($683 million), beating a consensus forecast of 4.4 billion crowns. In Britain alone, profit jumped by 53 percent.
SEB's operating profit in the quarter jumped nearly 80 percent to 5.01 billion crowns, beating the average forecast of 4.68 billion crowns in a Reuters poll. ($1 = 6.5313 Swedish crowns) (Editing by David Holmes and David Goodman)