Some investors are staying clear of European bank stocks as fresh fears of debt crisis haven resurfaced, especially with Greece in recent weeks. Greece will be bailed out for the second time and is on track to implement austerity measures that will fix some of the country’s awful fiscal woes.
In general, Greece has always been the poorest country in Western Europe -- plagued by corruption, tax evasion and other social ills usually seen in third-world countries -- so in some sense, the country should not have been invited to become part of the European Union in the first place. However after joining the EU, despite sucking billions in aid from the EU in the years since, the cradle of democracy continues to remain a problem child and gains the attention of the global media for all the wrong reasons. Rightly so; hard-working Germany and other nations are getting tired of coming to the rescue of the lazy and irresponsible Greece over and over.
It must be noted that some European banks have high exposure to Greece. The fear of a Greek default -- and, to some lesser extent, fiscal issues in Portugal and Italy -- is keeping bank stocks depressed. However, when viewed from another perspective, some of these banks are cheap at current valuations and look attractive now. In my view, fears of debt crisis are way overblown and stronger banks are also badly hurt by the overall sentiment towards this sector. Investors with a long-term horizon of five years or more can consider adding some of the strong European banks.
Five European bank stocks that look attractive now are listed below with some reasons for investing in them:
1. Nordea Bank AB (OTCPK:NRBAY)
Current Dividend Yield: 3.84%
Investment Rationale: One of the largest banks in the Nordic region with a significant presence in the Baltic countries. Nordea’s Core Tier 1 Capital Ratio is high at 10.7%. The divided payout ratio is now higher than the pre-crisis level. The Swedish government plans to reduce its current ownership of around 13.4% from mid-August.
2. ING Groep NV (NYSE:ING)
Current Dividend Yield: N/A
Country: The Netherlands
Investment Rationale: ING is one of the top European financials with a global footprint. Though the group has suspended dividends, it is taking steps in the right direction for boosting its capital base and increasing asset growth. For example, in June, ING sold its popular ING Direct unit in the U.S. to the subprime lender Capital One (NYSE:COF) for $9.0 billion.
3. Societe Generale (OTCPK:SCGLY)
Current Dividend Yield: 4.59%
Investment Rationale: Societe Generale is one of the largest banking groups in France, with operations in 85 countries. SocGen is slowly recovering after getting hit hard in the credit crisis and a huge fraud committed by a rogue trader. This year, SocGen increased its dvidend payment significantly from 2010. The bank is well capitalized with a Tier 1 Ratio of 10.8% in the first quarter.
4. HSBC Holdings PLC (HBC)
Current Dividend Yield: 3.61%
Investment Rationale: Though based in UK, “The World’s Local Bank” has operations in 87 countries
serving some 95 million customers. HSBC has a strong presence, especially in fast-growing Asia. In the U.S., HSBC took prudent measures and limited losses in its Household International subprime unit, which it bought a few years ago. The bank has the highest market capitalization among the major British and top 20 European financials and stands to gain from growth in emerging markets.
5. Bank: Erste Group Bank AG (OTCPK:EBKDY)
Current Dividend Yield: 1.97%
Investment Rationale: Erste bank has a strong presence in Central and Eastern Europe, where the Czech economy is faring well and the Romanian economy has stabilized. Erste is looking for expansion in Poland, which has become highly successful among the former Eastern bloc countries. Erste Bank has recovered well from the depth of the credit crisis, since the government’s bailout did not dilute existing shareholders and came with extremely favorable conditions.
Note: Dividend yields noted are as of July 8.
Disclosure: Long ING, EBKDY.PK, SCGLY.PK