Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Interview with a Bank Analyst

(Hat Tip to Tariq – a terrific interview with a lot of insight on banking and investing in banks.)

In Margin of Safety, Seth Klarman says that value investors don’t invest in banks often because their asset books are too opaque. How, when you’re analyzing a bank, do you make sure the assets have a credible margin of safety?

It depends on a lot of factors. 1. The types of loans and geography 2. How loans are performing. 3. Management’s track record in originating loans and honesty. 4. How the macro is performing and 5. How aggressive/conservative management is in working through problem loans.

So dealing with the transparency, that’s a good question. Investing in financials is more of a gamble than any other category. You will simply not have the transparency you have at other simpler businesses. In other sectors management on conference calls can give you line item guidance that you can just plug in your models to come out with next quarter EPS within a small range of error. How many financial management teams got it wrong or thought they wouldn’t be the last one’s holding the bag during the crisis? I remember hearing Ken Lewis (CEO of Bank of America) talking about how the recession will end in 2Q08. And this guy basically gets a real time update on the economy on a daily basis.

So you want a wider margin of safety. If you would buy a company at 6x P/E, you might want to aim for 4x P/E.

Financials are truly a different animal in my opinion. There is no advantage in investing in financials (meaning you are not getting superior moats or higher ROE businesses compared to other sectors) If you thought the market was dead cheap in march for example, there were plenty of businesses in plain vanilla sectors (retail) that had rises greater than or similar to financials and were much easier to understand. Assuming these stocks were undervalued and haven’t gone up for speculative purposes, you can see that car rental company Avis Budget Group (NYSE:CAR) is up 11 fold since its low compared to Bank of America which is up 6x. I would say Avis is a lot easier to understand than BoA.

So why did value investors get it wrong?

As a value investor, investing in a financial requires really getting comfortable with the macro-economic situation. So unless you’re doing some kind of arbitrage (market-neutral) play, you will have to look at the macro. If you want to ignore the macro because Warren Buffett says it is useless then you want to stay away, especially if you’re not benchmarked or don’t have a mandate to invest in financials.

I think that some value investors refused to believe that this time it is different. Also, they just didn’t understand the risks involved with some of the intricacies in financials. Bruce Berkowtiz talks about how he didn’t understand AIG when he read about their derivatives and said pass.

I think that other value investors, especially the ones who decided that AIG was cheap let those risks pass by them. Or they looked at history and said “Okay, this bank trades at 1/2 book and based on history its never been cheaper.” They were wrong.

What would happen to banks in a hyper-inflationary scenario in which the 30-year Treasury yield goes to 15-20% or higher, as Julian Robertson has suggested?

In a hyper or super high rate environment, it will not be good for financials and equities.

The first step would be that asset sensitive banks where loans/securities re-price faster than their liabilities would win temporarily. If you read what SCHW has said, for every 100 bps rise in rates they generate 600 million in net revenues, which pretty much fall straight to the bottom line.

Eventually the dynamic that would kick in would be that depositors would demand higher rates. If rates are 15% depositors wont want 3% CDs. So right there, funding costs would go up.

For a bank to make money, it’s usually an 80/20 split. So, 80% comes from interest income and 20% from fees. Since banks typically generate income from net interest income, they’re going to have to make loans that are higher than their funding costs. The argument is, what homeowner wants to pay a 15% mortgage in a 10% unemployment environment? Credit card rates have already gone up — you’ve seen Wells Fargo and others already do this to try to protect against potential regulatory changes, so that they can keep ROEs closer to a historical level.

I’d argue though that loan demand would collapse. Unless it’s a necessity but I don’t think anybody can raise prices high enough to match that kind of rate environment. Would you pay $20 for a Starbucks coffee? I don’t think so.

So the basic idea here is that nobody will be able to afford those loans and the demand for credit will fall?

So yeah, when funding costs become elevated it’s tough for them to make loans higher than the funding cost. A coffee shop isn’t going to take a loan to buy an espresso maker when the rate is 15%. To make money above their 15% cost you would have to raise prices to the point where no one would purchase a latte. Will that espresso machine make a 15% return to make that a viable expense? I doubt it. Initially, when rates start to rise, asset sensitive banks will win.

So let’s say a bank out there has locked in 5% funding base for the next 10 years. If rates go to 20%, they’re safe with their 5% and they’ll be able to price loans above that easily. Or a bank can become the lender to the government, but if all you’re doing is funding the government that wont work in the long term, as the economy would collapse.

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