Last July I gave a presentation to the third-year students attending the Consumer Bankers Association’s Executive Banking School. The presentation, which can be found here, touched on three big valuation themes for bank investors: estimate revisions, earning power and long-term growth.

Although Wall Street is overly focused on the quarterly earnings process, investors care because of what quarterly results imply about earnings (or cash flow) estimates for the next year and more generally about a company’s earning power. Earning beats that are based upon fundamentals of faster revenue growth and/or positive operating leverage usually will result in rising estimates and an increase in the share price. The opposite is true, too.

For U.S. banks that have largely finished reporting third quarter results, questions about all three—especially earning power—are in flux more than usual. Industry profitability has always been cyclical, but what is normal depends. Since the early 1980s, there have been fewer recessions that have resulted in long periods of low credit costs. Monetary policy has been radical since 2008. What’s normal was also distorted in 2020 and 2021 by PPP income that padded earnings but will evaporate in 2023.

Most banks beat consensus EPS estimates, largely due to negligible credit costs if not negative loan loss provisions as COVID-19 related reserve builds that occurred in 2020 proved to be too much; however, there was no new news with the earnings release as it relates to credit.

Investors concluded with the release of third and fourth quarter 2020 results that credit losses would not be outsized. Overlaid was confirmation from the corporate bond market as spreads on high yield bonds, CLOs and other structured products began to narrow in the second quarter of 2020 as banks were still building reserves.

As of October 28, 2020, the NASDAQ Bank Index has risen 78% over the past year and 39% year-to-date.

Much of that gain occurred during November (October 2020 was a strong month, too) through May as investors initially priced-in reserve releases to come; and then NIMs that might not fall as far as feared as the yield on the 10-year UST doubled to 1.75% by late March. Bank stocks underperformed the market during the summer as the 10-year UST yield fell. Since late September banks rallied again as investors began to price rate hikes by the Fed beginning in 2022 rather than 2023.

No one knows for sure; the future is always uncertain. For banks, two key variables have an outsized influence on earnings other than credit costs: loan demand and rates. In other industries the variables are called volume and price. If both rise, most banks will see a pronounced increase in earnings as revenues rise and presumably operating leverage improves. Street estimates for 2022 and 2023 will rise, and investors’ view of earning power will too.

We do not know what the future will be either.  Loan demand and excess liquidity have been counter cyclical forces in the banking industry since banks came into being.  The question is not if but how strong loan demand will be when the cycle turns. Interest rates used to be cyclical, too, until governments became so indebted that “normal” rates apparently cannot be tolerated.

Nonetheless, at Mercer Capital we have decades of experience of evaluating earnings, earning power, multiples and other value drivers. Please give us a call if we can assist your institution.    

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