Mark-to-Profit: Why I No Longer Hate Banks

Includes: BAC, C, CNO, EEM, FAS, GNW, IYF, PNX
by: Glen Bradford

Allow me to start off by illustrating my sentiment from January 2008 – February 2009: I hate banks and I have no idea what they are doing. I hate anything financially related.

But, I find myself not hating banks anymore. What happened? I’ve got eight leading indicators that people might be aware of but aren’t catching headlines like they should be and I’ve got four monster catalysts. What do I know? I’m only the Motley Fool’s Hottest Player going into Easter Weekend. Further, my entire college tuition is riding on the stock market.

Leading Indicators:

  1. Federal Funds Target Rate is nil. This means that banks can borrow as cheaply as they ever have been able to. When you borrow at these interest rates, the net present value of any opportunity where you can at least get your money back is a good one to be taking.

  1. Banks as a sector cheap from a historical perspective. I wonder why? Fear, panic, disorder, lack of trust, lack of speculation --- just a few ideas.

  1. There is tons of cash on the sidelines. Blood is in the streets. There has definitely been “the slaughtering of the speculator” over the past year and a half. I believe now is the time when the speculator finally gets congratulated.
  2. We are up 28% off the bottom according to the S&P500.
  3. Global Markets are leading the way. They are up 53.4% according to EEM [iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index (ETF)].
  4. My uncle who is a banker panicked and sold out of the market at Dow 6700.
  5. Mark-to-market has been relaxed to ‘mark-to-whatever-makes-us-look-good.’ A.K.A mark-to-profit.
  6. The uptick rule might come back. In my opinion, this isn’t necessary at this point.

Monster Catalysts:

  1. Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) said they were profitable in the first two months of 2009. Great! Now they can do whatever they want to their balance sheet with the relaxation of mark-to-market. What does that imply? How can you lose money when you get to put whatever you want on a balance sheet? Especially if you’re a bank and you thoroughly understand how to crunch numbers and make them look favorable, you’re going to be looking really good now. It’s the Enron dilemma of “mark-to-model.” I could come up with some great spreadsheet models that make me look like an undervalued opportunity.
  2. It’s already happening! Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) is coming in crushing analysts. Well, of course! What do you expect when you can borrow money to invest in opportunities and you’re not paying a significant interest rate on what you borrow?
  3. Analysts are going to get caught with their pants down this week. Earnings are coming out. Tuesday: Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS); Thursday: JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM); Friday: Citigroup (C). There is so much upside that they simply can’t see because they don’t really understand what’s going on. If they did, they wouldn’t be analysts. They’d be retired. What does this do? This sets up an opportunity for some huge price target upgrades, usually after the price actually appreciates to that target. Have you noticed that analyst price targets seem to be a lagging indicator of stock prices --- or is it just me?
  4. Debt upgrades. Once mark-to-profit kicks into full swing, the ratings agencies have to think a little more highly of these poor banks.

How to play this one:

I like a couple insurance agencies in decreasing order: CNO, GNW, PNX. I think GNW didn’t need the TARP anyway. That’s a sign of strength. Am I the only one seeing this?

I like a couple bank plays, also in decreasing order: FAS, C, BAC. I’m not into the Wells Fargos and the Goldman Sachs or even JPMorgans of the world --- where is the upside there? 100%? Not enough.

Disclosure: Glen Bradford owns CNO, GNW, PNX, FAS, C, BAC and/or options on them in his and his investor’s accounts.