Trading Global Banks on Economic Recovery

 | Aug 30, 2013 | 1:30 PM EDT  | Comments
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mtu

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mfg

The email file on Friday contained a query from a long-time reader and good friend about National Bank of Greece (NBG). They reported earnings Thursday and exceeded analyst expectations primarily because of strong results at their Turkish operations.

Bad loans are still an issue with the Greek side of the bank as more than 20% of all loans at the bank are more than 90 days past due. Greece is still a mess with 28% unemployment, and it will take a long time to get better. I have no idea if they have turned the corner but will just hold my shares as a long term option in an eventual recovery.To my discredit, I missed the arbitrage-related rally last year and didn't sell my shares, so I will settle in for a very long ride.

The exchange did turn my thoughts to foreign banks as a play on a global economic recovery. Europe and parts of Asia have struggled to turn the corner and it seems that every green shoot is met with a shot of economic DDT. As our own Lindsey Bell reported Friday morning, the numbers out of Europe do not really show much improvement and unemployment remains very high.

On the flip side, the Japanese numbers today reflected what looks like a broadening recovery that may take hold and justify Abenomics. I have long been an advocate of owning large banks as a way to play on eventual recoveries in foreign economies. There are some interesting candidates in both regions right now. Japan looks like it will get its act together long before Europe does. The government has taken a very aggressive approach to stimulate the economy and right now it looks like it is working. I have owned Japanese banks since 2009 and have no intention of selling them anytime soon. Both Mitsubishi UFJ  (MTU) and Mizhou Financial (MFG) still trade below book value and have enormous long-term potential. I would prefer to buy them on one of the news -related selloffs, but I think owning for the next five years will be a profitable endeavor.

Europe is going to take a lot longer to see a strong economy. The Old World is inching towards a recovery. Business managers are showing more confidence across the zone, according to a report from the European Commission about things like sales, profits and eventual job creation.

Unemployment is still a huge problem, however, and while the climate of Southern Europe may be sunnier, the economic outlook in countries like Spain and Italy is still pretty cloudy. I think you can buy many European banks, but you will need a long time frame and a strong stomach as they will be quite volatile. Fortunately, I have both.

I like Commerz Bank (CRZBY) in Germany right now. The bank is still trying to digest acquisitions made just as the global economy came crashing down. For a w it looked like bad shipping loans might drag them under. Shipping is improving, however, and is now actually a reason to buy the shares.

The German government is thought to be considering the sale of its 17% stake in the bank, and an outright sale to stronger global banks is not out of the question. With the stock trading at 44% of book value, it's likely that investors would do very well with either a sale or as long-term holders.

Societe Generale (SCGLY) is another bank that flirted with oblivion, but has managed to pull back from the abyss. The bank still has some issues with problem loans, but there are signs that it is getting better. The French economy is still a bit of mess, but the bank is back in the black and actually beat the always highly accurate analyst estimates in the past quarter. The stock is trading at 60% of tangible book value and appears to offer a lot of upside over the next few years.

Buying large foreign banks has paid off for me over the past few years; I expect it will continue to do so. It's not for everybody as news and global events tend to create a lot of volatility in these stocks.

My preferred approach to these issues is to buy a little and then look to add as news and markets drive price swoons. Fortunately, both Europe and Japan have provided plenty of chances to add more shares cheaper and I suspect they will continue to do so.

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