Financial stocks were so out of favor for most of 2022 that perhaps their tickers should have been appended with a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque “U” — for “unloved.” Yet after some decent gains so far this year, the sector could draw suitors aplenty as 2023 progresses.
The present allure of financial stocks, stemming from low valuations and high levels of capital, is especially strong as higher interest rates are making lending money more profitable.
As of mid-February, the Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF had recovered about half its 2022 losses. Amid this comeback, robust earnings have kept the sector’s price-earnings ratios low, as reflected by XLF’s P/E of 14.5 in mid-February.
Buckets are out at the banks
Banks and other lenders have their buckets out while it’s raining higher rates, taking advantage of the opportunity for higher net interest income. Meanwhile, ethereally higher bond yields are boosting the massive fixed income holdings of large insurance companies.
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This favorable scenario follows three decades of reliable growth, with financials outpacing the S&P 500 by more than 6% annually, even after paying above average dividends.
Today, large banks hold nearly twice the capital relative to their risk-weighted assets that they did before the financial crisis of 2008, which resulted in tougher reserve requirements from regulators. During the pandemic, some major banks actually turned a profit.
Low share prices are the norm
Despite gains this year, share prices of this sector are still quite low, considering good earnings and a long history of corporate performance.
One reason for the low prices is fear of recession. But even if the most widely anticipated recession ever actually becomes reality, assuming that the short-and-shallow camp turns out to be right, financial sector earnings could easily prove more resilient than normally expected in a downturn.
Also tamping down prices is long-term market perception, said Christopher Davis, portfolio manager and chairman of Davis Advisors in New York. Several months ago, he made the case that financials tend to be mispriced because they’re “widely misunderstood,” adding the sector was (and still is, in my opinion) “primed for long-term revaluation.”
Revaluation could be in the offing, as indicated by shifts in the sector’s technical indicators, especially those for diversified financial companies and insurance companies, following growth in the latter this year. As of late February, Invesco KBW Property & Casualty Insurance ETF was up more than 14% over the preceding six months. After taking big hits from Hurricane Ian last year, insurance companies are getting more respect from analysts now that they are on firmer footing in fairer weather.
A close haircut for regional banks
Regional banks, which took a close haircut early last year after hitting a five-year peak in January, are also recovering. The bellwether ETF for this group, SPDR Regional Banking, was up nearly 9% year to date as of mid-February. Many regional banks have recently been buying back shares to support a floor on prices and give shareholders more total return without getting locked into dividend increases.
Meanwhile, credit card providers are benefitting from post-pandemic travel and increasing card usage in general, with balances way up in recent months. Also positive are prospects for exchanges and data providers, a sector category whose earnings in recent years have grown twice as fast as those of the S&P 500.
Here are some attractive financial stocks with strong growth prospects and fundamental metrics signaling low downside risk:
- Truist Financial: Formed in 2019 by a merger of equals — regional banks BB&T Corp. and SunTrust — Truist is now the nation’s seventh-largest bank, with a capitalized ratio nearly twice what’s required by regulators. Truist’s dividend has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Post-merger kinks typically dampen companies’ share price growth, so Truist’s recent underperformance relative to KRE was expected. And Truist’s growth could exceed peers’ because it operates in rapidly growing regions — primarily, the mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
- East West Bancorp: This is a fast-growing, full-service commercial bank with locations in the U.S., serving the Asian-American community, and in China. Shares were up nearly 19% year to date as of mid-February. This growth is expected to accelerate from China’s reopening from Covid lockdowns. CFRA has this bank as a strong buy, forecasting 2023 growth of 17% to 19%, in part because net interest income currently makes up 89% of its revenue, versus 73% for peers. Also, the bank has “no exposure to mortgage banking or capital markets, which have been severely impacted by rising rates and economic uncertainty,” CFRA states, citing balance sheet momentum, a discounted valuation and the advantage of a Chinese population in the U.S. that’s growing faster than the whole.
- FactSet Research Systems: FactSet is the star of the sector’s data-provider segment. It’s an interesting, attractive play with recurring revenues of 98%, largely because financial firm customers rely so heavily on FDS’s data. You can see it cited on brokerage platforms and analyst reports. FDS’s software, data and analytics supports the workflow of both buy-side and sell-side clients. Customers include asset managers, bankers, wealth managers, asset owners, hedge funds, corporate users, and private equity and venture capital professionals. The company has an excellent track record of maneuvering through tough economic times, evidenced by its top-line sales growth for 42 consecutive years and annual dividend raises for the last 23 years. The difficulties of changing data providers amount to an economic moat that’s daunting to competitors.
- American Express: This is the right business at the right time, with business travel improving, China reopening and consumer spending among the affluent strong. Revenue growth went from a 10-year stretch of 2% annually to 25% in 2022, with 17% growth forecast for this year. Connecting better with millennials and Generation Z customers than its peers, American Express is acquiring new cardholders at an increasing rate. Analysts expect earnings to rocket up 30% over the next two years, while those of competitors appear likely to shrink. And because of well-heeled customers, this company has less credit risk than its peers.
- Chubb: Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurer, operating in 54 countries but with 60% of its revenue from North America. CB has a market-leading position in industrial, commercial and mid-market traditional and specialty property-casualty coverage. It is also a leader in high net worth personal-insurance coverage, a category unlikely to feel pain from an economic downturn. Chubb has high-quality underwriting, but shares are trading at a discount to peers with lower-quality underwriting. Higher premiums, a 98.4% customer-retention rate and higher interest rates should all contribute to strong earnings growth, and shares are widely viewed as significantly undervalued.
The current, higher rates aren’t going down anytime soon. This sector is currently positioned for sustained earnings strength and likely price growth throughout this year and into 2024.
— By Dave Sheaff Gilreath, CFP, partner and chief investment officer of Sheaff Brock Investment Advisors LLC and Innovative Portfolios LLC.