Well-Capitalized Regional Banks: The Bottom Is In

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Includes: CNB, MTB, RF, USB, WFC, WMIH
by: Matthew Rafat

I am calling a bottom in well-capitalized regional bank stocks. When the New York Times publishes an article titled, "Analysts Say More Banks Will Fail" (by Louise Story) we have a good contrarian indicator. But here's what makes me angry: the reporter cites Richard Bove in her article as support for her thesis that despite being better capitalized in general, more banks will collapse. Take a look at this Nightly Business Report link to an interview with Mr. Bove:

http://www.pbs.org/nbr/site/onair/transcripts/080714c/

He expressly says he believes regional banks are in good condition:

"I think that the regional banks are actually in relatively good condition...I think if you look a year from now, the prices of bank stocks will be considerably higher than they are today."

Of course, he also says it is risky to bet on bank stocks now, in a time of panic, but overall, the clear sentiment is that the overwhelming majority of banks are healthy. The article itself states that 150 out of 7,500 banks might fail--or just 2%.

I have been very disappointed in my own stock picking ability because I bet on Colonial Bancgroup (CNB). While I bought almost all of my shares at under 5 dollars, the market has decided that CNB is worth only 3 dollars a share. I continue to believe I am correct, and the market is being irrational. The question is whether I can stay solvent until the market becomes rational again.

Bank stock balance sheets are abstruse because they defy normal value analysis. Usually, value investors like myself look at a company's total cash and total debt. My own personal yardstick is to deem a company undervalued if its net cash exceeds 10% of its market capitalization. For example, Intel has a market cap of 108 billion. Therefore, I want its net cash to be at least 10.8 billion before I view it as undervalued. Intel has about 11 billion in net cash, passing my test (I own shares in Intel).

Banks, on the other hand, cannot be analyzed in this way, because they make money through loans. As a result, Shakespeare's advice, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," doesn't apply. In addition, more debt on a bank's balance sheet does not necessarily denote irresponsible spending. Indeed, as an investor, you want your bank to have more debt on its balance sheet, because banks make money by loaning to others, not by keeping their cash.

The problem lies in evaluating whether a bank's debt as shown on its balance sheet is likely to be repaid by its debtors. As debtors default on loans, they cause an immediate downward spiral: the bank that loaned them money has to stop lending others as much money; perhaps raise the rate on its CDs to attract more money; and take other steps that decrease its ability to take advantage of normal business conditions. What we forget is in a non-panicked world, banks have the easiest job: they get money from the Fed Reserve or their depositors at 2.25%, and then loan out the money at 5.5% or more. They make an automatic 3.25% just for being a middleman. (You can see why online banks are even better--they eliminate the fixed costs of a bank, like its numerous tellers/employees, ATM machines, and physical structures, and just get paid for being a middleman, minus the normal overhead. That's why an online bank like ING can offer higher CD rates.)

Having established that a bank's balance sheet cannot be analyzed in the same way as a non-bank's, how do we ascertain whether a bank might go under? One informal measure might be to measure the amount of total cash vs. total debt. It's a similar analysis as above, except that in these precarious times, if a bank has too much debt relative to its cash deposits, it is more likely to collapse. All figures are from Yahoo Finance's "Key Statistics" pages as of July 14, 2008:

IndyMac, which has collapsed, had about 2 billion in total cash and 11 billion in debt. That's a 9 billion dollar difference.

Washington Mutual (WM0 has 15 billion in total cash and 97 billion dollars in total debt. That's an 82 billion dollar difference.

Regions Financial (NYSE:RF) has 5.5 billion in total cash and 29.5 billion in total debt, a 24 billion dollar difference.

M&T Bank (NYSE:MTB), considered to be a healthy, well-capitalized bank, has 2 billion in total cash, and 16.8 billion in total debt, a difference of almost 15 billion.

US Bancorp (NYSE:USB) has 7.3 billion in total cash and 72.6 billion in total debt, a 65.3 billion dollar difference.

Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), considered to be a conservative lender, has 25 billion dollars in total cash, and 157 dollars in total debt, or a difference of 132 billion. This high level of debt is very surprising. Warren Buffett extolled the virtues of Wells Fargo in a recent annual shareholder letter, and Mr. Buffett is the classic value investor. Wells Fargo might have a high debt load because it didn't sell off its loans to Wall Street and held them on its own books instead, but I am just speculating. As a direct holder of the debt, Wells Fargo can hold it till kingdom come, and would have no external pressure to dump loans at a discount. In some ways, its refusal to spread its risk creates an advantage. (I own some shares in Wells Fargo.)

Now we come to Colonial Bancgroup (CNB). CNB has 2.5 billion in total cash and 5.3 billion in total debt, a 2.8 billion dollar difference. It has the lowest total debt of any other bank above, and plenty of cash relative to its debt.

Whatever you may think of banks collapsing, CNB probably won't be among them--its debt load just isn't high enough to make a collapse imminent. At 3.36 dollars a share, if you have an iron will, you may want to consider buying 1000 shares and leaving it alone for a while. A prudent investor would probably wait until after July 21, 2008 to buy, because CNB reports earnings on July 21, 2008. I will hold onto my 1100 shares of CNB and be patient--like Wells Fargo, I can wait a long time, but I hope next week brings good tidings and immediate vindication.

Disclosure: Long CNB