Buying the Oversold Financial Sector

Includes: C, IYG, VFH, XLF
by: Vahan Janjigian, CFA

Regular readers know that I have been bearish on both the economy and stocks for quite some time. While I certainly enjoyed the ride, I could not understand why stocks were rallying so strongly during the first half of 2007. Although the sell-off that began in mid-July did not surprise me, I was perplexed by the full and rapid recovery that immediately followed. Unfortunately, as we all know, those gains did not last very long. The S&P currently stands about 12% below its October peak.

It was obvious that economic conditions were deteriorating. There was much discussion about the housing bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis. Every rational investor had to be worried about the potential ramifications of these problems and the real possibility that they would spread to other sectors of our economy. Yet I found it incomprehensible how the eternal optimists kept downplaying these concerns. I don’t know how many times I was told that subprime mortgages represent just a tiny fraction of all mortgages, or that housing prices would never fall on a nationwide basis.

One prominent and perennial bull, who once chided the media for giving bears too much air time, recently argued there is “so little evidence of serious trouble” in the economy. Admittedly, this remark came before the 0.6% fourth-quarter Advance GDP figure was released, and before the Department of Labor said initial jobless claims jumped to 375,000, pushing up the four-week average by more than 10,000 to 325,750. Yet there has long been more than a little evidence that the economy was headed for trouble.

As for the argument that subprime mortgage problems would be contained, almost all financial institutions have already announced massive writedowns. This is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is a recent release from pharmaceuticals giant Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY). Bristol said it took a $275 million impairment charge in the fourth quarter due to soured investments in auction rate securities (i.e., collateralized debt obligations backed by mortgages and credit card loans). Furthermore, Bristol no longer considers these investments liquid and has reclassified them from current to non-current assets. I suspect Bristol won’t be the only major non-financial company revealing these kinds of writedowns.

There is much debate about whether or not a recession is coming. In my view, it has already arrived. But whether or not it’s an “official” recession is largely irrelevant. The Federal Reserve is obviously so alarmed it has slashed interest rates at a record-breaking pace without regard to the inflationary consequences. Washington politicians are also alarmed. They are pushing through a fiscal stimulus package many observers thought would take months to reach the president’s desk. This combination of strong monetary and fiscal stimuli will prevent a recession from becoming too deep or prolonged.

While I remain bearish on the economy for the time being, as I explained on January 22, I am turning more bullish on stocks. I believe stocks have fallen enough to be attractive to all investors except those with very short horizons. It’s time to allocate more money to this asset class. Our recommendation of Citigroup (NYSE:C) this month conveys my conviction that some of the best opportunities for long-term gains will come from the oversold financial sector.