Bank of America Corp. (NYSE:BAC) has regained its reputation as America’s best consumer bank.
Source: Mike Mozart via Flickr
For most of this decade that honor was held by Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE:WFC), until a series of scandals involving phony accounts showed that reputation to be undeserved. The crown on BAC’s head, however, has a different risk, in that it is based on computerized systems that are vulnerable to failure or hacking.
After delivering net income of $5.6 billion, 48 cents per share, on revenue of $21.8 billion, highlighted by $4 billion in mobile phone transfers over the Zelle peer to peer network, the bank has finally pushed its price-to-book value to 1.097, meaning the business is worth more than its assets for the first time this decade.
Better yet, from an investment standpoint, the bank is cutting staff.
Computing to Serve
Since 2011, CEO Brian Moynihan has cut head count at the bank by 80,000 positions and now has about 210,000 employees. The only net hiring taking place is among primary salespeople.
None of this is a surprise to regular readers of InvestorPlace. I wrote last month that the bank was becoming a good long-term holding for young investors, making up for lost time after fines registered during the financial crisis, mainly by units acquired at the time like CountryWide Financial, were finally paid. Since then the shares are up roughly 14%.
Note that I wrote this is a conservative investment for young investors. It’s not for everyone. It’s not for you if you’re looking for quick gains. As our Ian Bezek wrote after the earnings came out for the stock to advance much further it needs higher interest rates and higher margins, which don’t seem to be happening.
The bank itself may be partly responsible. Bank of America has become increasingly productive thanks to its investments in technology and technology is naturally deflationary. Lower costs and greater efficiency means higher profits even on thin margins, thus lower prices on products and services to consumers.
In addition to making payments easier, Bank of America is also using technology to reach smaller investors and compete more closely with the real star of the investment decade: Charles Schwab Corp. (NYSE:SCHW), the former discount brokerage that has used automation to create a 243% gain for shareholders in the last five years.
This is true throughout the economy, not just in banking. It means inflation is kept in check, which in turn means interest rates don’t rise, which in turn means margins don’t increase, and banking remains a low-margin business.
Most analysts have yet to get the low inflation message, however. Of the 32 analysts following the stock, 18 currently rate it a buy, and only one is suggesting a sell. The shares are still a bargain relative to the market, trading at 15.2 times earnings, and the recently-raised 12 cents per share dividend is likely only to increase, given that it was covered four times by earnings in the last quarter.
But bank stocks are not supposed to be fast money. It is better for everyone if they trade in a relatively tight range, delivering regular profits and dividends to conservative investors.
If you are reading about your banker in the newspaper, in other words, and he’s not standing at the front of a room holding a plaque, chances are it’s not good news. Like all quality banks, Bank of America bankers are increasing reserves against a possible recession, when customers can’t pay it back the money they’re now borrowing.
This is very good news indeed. It means that the next time the economy fails, it won’t be the big banks that are to blame.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the historical mystery romance The Reluctant Detective Travels in Time, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in SCHW.
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