Banking on Europe

03/17/2015 10:00 am EST

Focus: GLOBAL

Benjamin Shepherd

Analyst, Breakthrough Tech Profits, Global Income Edge and Personal Finance

After the relative success of our own quantitative easing program, the European Central Bank has taken a page from the Fed's playbook to begin buying $66.3 billion worth of bonds a month, notes Benjamin Shepherd, editor of Income Without Borders.

The idea is the injection of cash, to the tune of $1.1 trillion eventually, will lift all boats and create as little market distortion as possible.

As QE drives down bond yields, while flooding the financial system with liquidity, all that cash naturally flows into the stock market. And some of the biggest winners in the QE dash-for-cash will likely be the region's major banks.

Based in Spain and currently yielding 11%, Banco Santander (SAN) has managed to stay profitable throughout the European economic crisis, largely thanks to its robust Latin American operations.

Last year saw a marked improvement for the bank, as its net profit in its home Spanish market nearly tripled, while mortgage lending showed strong gains.

Largely thanks to that improvement, coupled with the positive affect of Europe's new QE program, analysts expect Banco Santander's earnings to grow by nearly 15% this year and 18% in 2016. And if Europe's QE experience is anything like our own, those estimates are conservative.

Now is an ideal time to buy the bank's shares, since they've sold off sharply following a dividend cut at the end of the year. But with the bank on firmer financial footing—even as the ECB extends a helping hand—the dividend payout is likely to quickly recover.

While shares of London-based HSBC (HSBC) haven't been quite as volatile as Banco Santander and offer a lower 5.7% yield, the bank has faced some troubles of its own.

It's found itself in the center of several scandals over the past few years, recently paying $809 million to settle an investigation into its role in fixing international exchange rates.

But, as the second-largest bank in the world with a leading market position in Europe, much of the cash that the ECB is pumping into the region's financial system will likely pass through HSBC.

So, while it is widely expected that legal costs will continue weighing on the bank's earnings over the next couple of years, here in the US, many of our banks still managed to report surging profits despite paying massive settlements.

If you want to take a cynical view of the situation, you could say that the ECB is essentially subsidizing the HSBC's legal costs. If you're more pragmatic about it, though, it's adding extra room for profits.

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