Believe it or not, France exports much more than soft cheeses and techno bands. Despite the worries about the stability of the European banking system, French bank stocks offer some of the best value I've stumbled on recently.
While BNP Paribas (OTC:BNPZY) has grabbed headlines thanks to a $9.8 billion fine related to doing business with countries blacklisted by U.S. regulators, a cleaner name has showed up on my radar...
Credit Agricole (CRARY).
While it's true that I wrote an article titled "Why I Will Never Buy Another Bank Stock" a few months ago, the focus was on regional banks -- not global giants. There's a big difference.
With assets of over $2 trillion, Credit Agricole comes in at #9 among the world's largest banks -- but its ADRs (American depositary receipts) have had a rough go of things over the past few years:
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After falling below $2 in the depths of the Greek-fueled European debt crisis, CRARY has rebounded smartly, more than tripling since mid-2012. But is it still worth buying?
Put simply, the stock has sufficient potential growth combined with an extremely pessimistic value placed on it by a shortsighted market -- one of my favorite textbook contrarian investment themes.
To see what I mean, compare Credit Agricole with U.S. banking behemoth JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM):
Clearly, Credit Agricole is a much stronger buy based on growth and value. But what's driving both?
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For the first quarter of 2014, the company brought in a staggering $4 billion in revenue, an 11% increase over a year ago. Credit Agricole's corporate and investment banking business accounted for nearly a third of that haul and grew at an impressive 8.2% rate during the quarter.
But the concern that's putting pressure on the stock price is coming from France's neighbor to the west: Portugal. A subsidiary of one of the nation's largest banks, Espirito Santo Financial Group (ESFOF), which has been on shaky capital ground since the European debt crisis of 2011, missed a commercial payment.
Why is this significant? Besides reigniting concerns about the eurozone's financial stability, Credit Agricole owns 14.6% of Banco Espirito Santo. While this is a major concern, Portuguese authorities, under the watchful eye of the European Central Bank, have intervened and taken steps to try to prevent another Greek-style banking crisis.
Regarding the eurozone's financial stability: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has predicted an anemic 1.1% growth rate for European Union GDP. Owning shares of Credit Agricole puts investors ahead of that curve with projected high-teens earnings growth and 20%-plus revenue growth.
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Risks to Consider: Clearly, Credit Agricole's substantial stake in troubled Banco Espirito Santo is an albatross. Credit Agricole is well capitalized, but the primary concern with any European bank is contagion and panic in the event of a full-blown financial crisis.
Action to Take --> In my view, the market has mispriced Credit Agricole, creating an excellent opportunity for contrarian/value-oriented investors. Provided we see no further negative EU macroeconomic events, a 12- to 18-month price target of $9 makes sense. Factoring in the dividend, that's a potential total return of nearly 40%.