Is John Paulson Really Bullish on Banks?

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Includes: BAC, RF, SKF
by: The Inoculated Investor

When I first saw the Bloomberg headline that indicated that as of the end of Q2 John Paulson was the 4th largest shareholder of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), I wasn’t actually too surprised. For a man who had navigated the treacherous markets of both 2007 and 2008 as well as anyone in the world, I just assumed that he had bought BAC when everyone thought it was going to be nationalized. My first thoughts were that either Paulson had anticipated that the government would not let BAC fail or shrewdly realized that the bank stocks were poised to rally from pretty depressed levels.

Obviously I had no idea exactly when during Q2 he had bought his gigantic share but based on his recent track record I was inclined to believe that it was somewhere at the beginning of the quarter (early April) when BAC was in the $7 range. Before I had looked through the 13F filing and when I saw the stock up 6.7% the day after Paulson’s announcement, the conspiracy theorist in me wanted to believe that he was using the knowledge that his disclosure would prompt others to buy (based on the number of copycats out there) to sell out of his position. But, now that I have taken a detailed look at the 13F, I am not so sure that he is still long the stock.

Obviously, my first thoughts on this subject were biased on two fronts. First, I immediately gave credit to Paulson for being able to deftly trade in and out of positions and subsequently make money based on the extreme volatility we have seen. Second, since I am personally so bearish on regional and money center banks, especially after their incredible runs, I automatically assumed that a man who had made so much money being short financials was equally as pessimistic on the sector. However, aside from a short paragraph discussing his purchase of Regions Financial (NYSE:RF) in the Bloomberg article, what I and most of the headlines missed is that as of the end of Q2 Paulson was quite long the US banking sector. Check out the table below to see what I am talking about:

Paulson and Co.

Q1-->Q2

Position

Ticker

Shares Owned

Bought (Sold)

Bank of America

BAC

167,990,464

167,990,464

Capital One Financial

(NYSE:COF)

17,000,000

17,000,000

Fifth Third Bancorp

(NASDAQ:FITB)

5,000,000

5,000,000

First Horizon National

(NYSE:FHN)

3,000,000

3,000,000

JP Morgan Chase

(NYSE:JPM)

7,000,000

7,000,000

Marshall and Ilsley

(NYSE:MI)

12,000,000

12,000,000

Peoples United Financial

(NASDAQ:PBCT)

2,750,000

0

Regions Financial

(RF)

35,000,000

35,000,000

SunTrust Banks

(NYSE:STI)

1,500,000

1,500,000

*Although Paulson also owns shares of Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), I do not consider GS to be a similar type of bank despite being classified as a bank holding company

My initial reaction to the fact that Paulson had taken a stake in some of the most troubled regional banks along with money center banks BAC and JPMorgan was: “Wow, what am I missing about this sector?” I mean, look at RF for example. As Karl Denninger pointed out Thursday morning, the company disclosed in its footnotes that on a mark to market basis its loans (as of June 30th) were worth $22.8B less than the balance sheet said they were. That’s in comparison to $18.7B in shareholder’s equity. Correct me if I am wrong. I know my math skills aren’t top notch, but that sounds like a $4B hole to me.

I have to admit I was perplexed. I saw Paulson speak recently in New York and the way he explained his strategy to short the RMBS market through buying credit default swaps on subprime-linked CDOs (just nod if you don’t understand—it’s not that important) was brilliant. He figured out that only 5% of the underlying loans would have to go bad for the tranches he had insurance against to be wiped out. Then he risked an insignificant amount (you read that right: he didn’t even have to bet the house) of his capital and due to the asymmetric nature of and levered payouts on CDS he literally made billions. Then he followed up a ridiculous year in 2007 by shorting the investment banks that he knew had written CDS contracts on the dodgy CDOs and who were holding a lot of subprime securities on their balance sheets. So simple but yet so brilliant. And yes, he made billions more in 2008.

So what gives now? He seemed to understand to some degree the toxic balance sheets of the banks last year. What does he think is different about the ones he owns now? Unless he has used the time since the end of Q2 to reduce his position sizes or eliminate his stakes in these banks (there have yet to be any filings that indicate as much---see below), at first glance it appeared that Paulson may genuinely be bullish about the prospects for these banks, even at the current price levels. I still didn’t believe it myself so I thought I would compare the prices at the end of Q2 to the current prices to see if I could craft a scenario in which he had sold on recent strength.

Stock Price

Stock Price

Position

Ticker

6/30/2009

8/13/2009

% Change

Bank of America

BAC

$13.20

$17.00

28.79%

Capital One Financial

COF

$21.88

$35.30

61.33%

Fifth Third Bancorp

FITB

$7.10

$10.84

52.68%

First Horizon National

FHN

$12.00

$13.60

13.33%

JP Morgan Chase

JPM

$34.11

$42.90

25.77%

Marshall and Ilsley

MI

$4.80

$7.32

52.50%

Peoples United Financial

PBCT

$15.07

$17.00

12.81%

Regions Financial

RF

$4.04

$5.20

28.71%

SunTrust Banks

STI

$16.45

$21.27

29.30%

Average Increase

33.91%

Well, isn’t that interesting? Even if Paulson did not buy these stocks at their 52 week lows, he still could have realized significant appreciation just in the last 45 days. Remember these increases have occurred in less than a month and a half so even if he bought the last day of Q2 the returns are enormous on an annualized basis. You can only imagine how well he has done if he bought in April or May. So with the lag between reporting and filing and the potentially stale nature of the June 30th data, he very well could be out of all of these positions. But wouldn’t he have had to file with the SEC indicating that he had sold out of a material position? Intuitively you would say no because he had not filed a 13D on any of them. But I thought I would check just to make sure.

Position

Ticker

Shares Owned

Total Shares Outstanding

% Total

Bank of America

BAC

167,990,464

8,650,000,000

1.94%

Capital One Financial

COF

17,000,000

449,000,000

3.79%

Fifth Third Bancorp

FITB

5,000,000

795,310,000

0.63%

First Horizon National

FHN

3,000,000

215,210,000

1.39%

JP Morgan Chase

JPM

7,000,000

3,920,000,000

0.18%

Marshall and Ilsley

MI

12,000,000

368,100,000

3.26%

Peoples United Financial

PBCT

2,750,000

332,970,000

0.83%

Regions Financial

RF

35,000,000

1,190,000,000

2.94%

SunTrust Banks

STI

1,500,000

498,790,000

0.30%

*Share data from Yahoo Finance

Looks like he is safely under the 5% threshold on all of these companies. This means that he could have sold out of these positions at anytime over the last 45 days without any official notification to the market.

So what can we take from all of this? Nothing concrete obviously. What we do know is that even after some of these stocks had run up from their low points in Q1 Paulson decided to invest in them. I should mention that as of the end of Q2 he owned 2M shares of the Proshares Ultra Short Financials (NYSEARCA:SKF), ostensibly as a hedge against his bank positions. He also may have been short other banks as hedges or in pair trades. Most importantly, there is no way to know whether he thought the long term fundamentals were good or if he was betting that the government’s attempts to recapitalize the banks and backstop liabilities would help push share prices up. But, in either case, if he held on long enough it looks like it turned out to be a very profitable decision (at least on paper).

My final thought is that it would be foolish to assume that just because he accumulated such large positions as of the end of Q2 that he is still long these stocks and is bullish on the sector as a whole. As I keep pointing out, these companies still face economic circumstances that include a weak and highly indebted consumer, continuing declines in housing prices, never-ending foreclosures, and an impending commercial real estate crisis.

So before you go and start advising everyone you know to buy shares of the US banks because Paulson has suddenly turned long term bullish on them, remember that he has proven to be smart enough to make billions of dollars in some of the most difficult markets investors have seen for decades. Just that fact should indicate to you that he just might be sly enough to know when to get out and even be willing to turn around and go short when the time is right.

Disclosure: Long SKF

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