Who will replace the fallen? (Banks, that is)

10/30/2009 8:30 am EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Mr. Market abhors a vacuum just as much as Mother Nature.

If the big U.S. banks are less interested in what you and I would call traditional banking, if many regional U.S. banks are cutting back on lending to shrink their balance sheets so that they don’t have to raise new capital, if some of the biggest overseas and U.S. financial institutions are exiting entire countries, it’s only logical to assume that somebody is going to fill the vacuum.

If you’re an investor interested in making a long-term profit in the financial sector, the only thing you want to know is Who?

I’m going to give you seven names to research and then tuck away until you can buy them at a reasonable price. The rally in the financial stocks since March 9 is no more sustainable than any early lead of mine would be in Sunday’s New York Marathon. But sometime in 2010 I think you’ll get a chance to buy the best names in the post-crisis financial sector. You just have to ready.

I sketched in part of the vacuum that’s forming in the traditional banking business in my October 27 post http://jubakpicks.com/2009/10/27/saving-the-big-banks-but-destroying-banking/ ) I explained that the biggest and most successful banks post-crisis, such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Goldman Sachs (GS) are making the majority of their revenue and an even bigger percentage of their profits from such activities as trading rather than core banking functions such as lending to businesses and consumers. I argued that the example of these big banks—and their success at generating profits when most of their peers are still producing red ink—will drive that whole tier of banks toward the trading and away from the lending model.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if most smaller U.S. banks—smaller than JPMorgan Chase, of course, doesn’t mean small—are embracing the opportunity to expand their traditional banking business. Most of them are still busy selling existing loan portfolios if they can and reducing the overall size of their loan portfolios by cutting back on new lending.

The motivation here is pretty simple: Banks such as Comerica (CMA), Fifth Third (FITB), KeyCorp (KEY), Regions Financial (RF), SunTrust Bank (STI), and Zions Bancorp (ZION) all need to “fix” their capital to lending ratios either by raising more capital in the public markets or by shrinking their lending portfolios. The ratio problem gets worse and worse every time these banks issue quarterly reports fessing up to big credit losses and announcing that they’re going to put more away in reserves against future losses. Because capital is still tough and expensive for banks to raise—especially if you’re a bank still showing a rising tide of credit losses—cutting back on lending is by far the most attractive solution.

These aren’t small banks. In stock market capitalization they range from $9.6 billion for SunTrust to $2.1 billion for Zions Bancorp. They’re big enough to have filled a good part of the void in the traditional banking markets caused by the move toward trading by the country’s biggest banks. But their own need to shrink their own loan portfolios is making them not the solution but part of the problem.

I don’t mean to give the impression that this problem is limited to the United States. The banking retreat from banking may be even greater in Europe where market forces and European Union regulators have e combined forces on creating a banking sector vacuum.

On the market side you have companies such as HSBC (HBC) that have decided to wind down their home mortgage business in the United States after generating more than $17 billion in losses.

On the regulatory side, the European Union, determined that banks who have taken government money shouldn’t get a competitive edge from the bailout (As Goldman Sachs has in the United States from government guarantees), are busy forcing banks to shrink their balance sheets or to lop off whole business units. So Germany’s Commerzbank (CRZBY) is being forced to shrink its balance sheet by 45%. ING (ING) will be required to split up its banking and insurance businesses and then sell its insurance unit, and to dispose of its ING Direct U.S. Internet banking business with its $90 billion in assets. (For more on ING see my post on Octrober 29.)

This looks like just the beginning to. European Union regulators have still to rule on re-organization plans submitted by Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group (LYG). Before the October 26 ING breakup announcement, the consensus among banking analysts in the United Kingdom was that Royal Bank of Scotland would have to shrink its 30% share of the small business lending market in the United Kingdom and to reduce its balance sheet by disposing of $425 billion in non-core assets.

In light of the ING decision, the thinking now goes, Royal Bank of Scotland may wind up doing even more.

So what banks have the potential to fill the vacuum?

Here’s a preliminary list of useful suspects for further research.

  • In the United States I’d look at US Bancorp (USB). According to Deutsche Bank, US Bancorp is one of the few U.S. banks that are likely to start growing its loan portfolio, not sometime in 2012 but now. Average loans grew by 3.1% in the third quarter—excluding acquired loans. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has looked to the bank to acquire troubled banks and their assets. US Bancorp has picked up $12.5 billion in deposits through this route in the last year. There’s even a chance that the bank will increase its current 5 cents a share dividend at the end of 2009 to, maybe 10 cents. The bank cut its dividend from 42.5 cents a share in the first quarter of 2009.

  • In Canada I’d look at Toronto-Dominion (TD). The bank has used its heavily regulated Canadian market as a base for moving into banking (through the acquisition of Commerce Bancorp) and discount brokerage services in the United States.

  • In Canada I’d look at Manulife Financial (MFC) to fill the void in China and Asia left by the withdrawal of American International Group (AIG) and ING from that insurance market.

  • In China I’d look at HSBC (HBC). After its debacle in the U.S. mortgage market when the company spent $17 billion on an acquisition that then produced $17 billion in losses, the company has refocused on its historic roots in Asia. The company’s CEO has moved to Hong Kong and HSBC is pursuing a listing on the Shanghai stock exchange.


  • In Spain I’d look at Banco Santander (STD). The company acquired U.S. bank Sovereign in 2008—not the best of timing—to break into the U.S. market. Through its acquisition of troubled Alliance and Leicester, and Bradford and Bingley in the United Kingdom Santander became the third largest bank in that country. (Oh, and Santander is the largest bank in Latin America.)

  • In Africa I’d look at Standard Bank Group (SBGOY). One of the four largest banks in South Africa, Standard Bank Group does business in 38 countries. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China owns 20% of Standard Bank’s shares. Standard Bank Group also owns Liberty Life Holdings, an insurance company.

  • In the United Kingdom I’d look at Standard Chartered (SCBFF). The London-based bank does business across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. It was in a strong enough position to offer to buy the Asian assets of Royal Bank of Scotland although the deal fell apart over differences in valuation.

As I said at the top, I wouldn’t buy any of these now after this huge, in my opinion pre-mature, rally in the financial sector. I think you’ll get a better chance to buy in 2010. But this gives us a place to start our research.  I’ll be filling the details and offering some new candidates as the global banking crisis continues to reshape the sector.

Full disclosure: I own shares in the following companies mentioned in this article: HSBC and Toronto-Dominion.
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