Westpac: Bank Down Under

03/24/2015 10:00 am EST

Focus: GLOBAL

Benjamin Shepherd

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

While most of the world muddled through the Great Recession, Australia—often called the “Lucky Country”—rode the global resources boom, observes Benjamin Shepherd, editor of Global Income Edge.

A stable economic environment produces plenty of winners, but banks are probably the biggest, especially in Australia’s market of limited competition.

The country’s banks dodged the housing crisis by maintaining tighter lending standards than their American or European peers.

The country’s oldest financial institution, Westpac Banking Corp. (WBK) is one of only four major banks in Australia and New Zealand. Its dominant market share gives Westpac incredible pricing power as well as economies of scale.

In 2008, Westpac merged with St. George Bank in what was then the biggest transaction in the history of Australia’s banking industry. The deal swelled the bank’s customer base to more than 10 million.

At the time, new CEO Gail Kelly had been at the helm less than a year. Under Kelly’s leadership, the bank also expanded its presence in Asia, expanding its operations in China, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.

Even as the bank continues to flourish, it’s attractively valued because Asian economic worries have hit Australian banks hard.

With China’s economy slowing after a decade-long hot streak, many prognosticators worry Australia’s economy will hit the skids as demand for commodities lags. Australia’s mining industry has slowed down significantly over the past two years.

Thanks to strong growth over the past decade, the bank’s net income rose 11.4%, on average, while earnings per share grew 6.5%, on average, boosting the bank’s annual dividend from 72 cents in 2005 to $1.35 today.

Even with the potential economic weakness in Australia baked in, analysts still forecast the bank’s earnings per share to grow nearly 7% this year to $2.58 and that estimate has been rising over the past few months. 

The forecast for 2016 is similarly bullish, with earnings growth of at least 5% to $2.71, leaving plenty of upside for fatter dividends over the next few years.

So, although the Australian economy faces some headwinds, Westpac’s commanding position in the region and its growing Asian footprint still make it the luckiest bank in a lucky country.

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