It's time to jump on the bandwagon and buy the banks.
I know they're up a lot recently, but they still have room to run. Consider this fact: The Financial Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund (NYSEArca:XLF) has led the major sectors higher in the last 3 to 6 months. But over the last 12 months, it's still down the most.
One of the easiest ways to make money is to invest in real companies where fear has been misplaced. I say "real" because some companies are truly doomed for legitimate business reasons: the tech stocks in 2000, subprime lenders in 2008, and solar stocks today. There was a time when the market imagined something similar might happen with the banks, but the recent stress-test results and dividend increases now indicate that those worries were nothing but a fantasy.
And I speak from experience, as I was one of those people who envisioned their demise. I had, after all, done a lot of research on the degree of messiness in their mortgage portfolios, and had discerned some real tomfoolery in their accounting practices. I was probably about half-right in my worries.
But you can only focus on stuff like that for so long before you realize that you're living in the past. This is 2012, and banks have been deleveraging for more than three years. We'll never know the full extent of the corruption and fraud that occurred during and after the subprime crash--but we do know that it's over, and it's time to move on.
Lots of money can be made because the banks are underowned. Many trade below book value and are now increasing dividends. The speed with which JP Morgan and U.S. Bancorp raised their payouts after March's stress-test results speaks volumes. Others will follow.
Those are "value" considerations: Banks are too cheap based on the status quo. But there is also a "growth" consideration: Banks stand to benefit from improving demand and business activity.
In a little-noticed detail of the Federal Reserve's last Z.1 Flow of Funds report , U.S. commercial lenders (Table F.110) reported that non-mortgage bank loans grew at a $245.6 billion annualized pace in the fourth quarter. Not only was that a record, but it also increased by more than 150 percent since middle of the year.
In other words, at the same time everyone was sweating bullets about Greece, U.S. banks had already begun growing their balance sheets. That's bullish.
The same report showed that net mortgages (Table F.217) contracted at a $209.9 billion pace,
versus a $303.7 billion decline in the third quarter and $384.1 billion between March and June. In fact, it was the smallest reduction since the first quarter of 2009!
Also consider these facts straight from the Fed's last loan officer survey . Again, remember all of these things happened at the same time that panic was sweeping Europe:
- Banks are easing lending standards to win business.
- Business-loan demand was the strongest since 2005.
- Banks are lowering borrowing costs and extending maturities.
- Terms on commercial real-estate (CRE) loans are loosening for the first in five years.
- Most banks expect fewer defaults on CRE loans.
These are the ingredients of a real bull market, and there are countless ways to play it.
Disclosure: I own the Direxion Daily Financial Bull 3x Index Fund (FAS), which is triple leveraged to the XLF.
(A version of this article appeared in optionMONSTER's What's the Trade? newsletter of March 14.)
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