Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Scotiabank Added to Cramer's 'Mad Money Foreign Legion'

The Globe and Mail, Andy Hoffman, 24 January 2007

Canada's big banks have long struggled in vain to win the attention of U.S. retail investors. That all changed this week for Bank of Nova Scotia when it was likened on a popular American television show to a fictional underworld crime figure.

The bank is not complaining. Instead it's embracing the comments made by the host of Mad Money, a raucous stock-picking show on financial news channel CNBC.

“All I can say, is ‘Booyah! Jim Cramer,' “ Scotiabank spokesman Frank Switzer said in an interview, adopting the program's signature rallying cry.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cramer, a former hedge fund manager turned TV star, compared Scotiabank to Hyman Roth, a ruthless and ultimately untrustworthy character in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part II — the second instalment of the film trilogy tracing the rise and fall of the Corleone family.

U.S. investors also applauded the comments, bidding Scotiabank shares up 62 cents (U.S.) or 1.4 per cent to $43.55 on the New York Stock Exchange.

More than 800,000 shares changed hands, more than 10 times the average daily trading volume over the past year.

So how is it that being equated with a mafia kingpin can be a good thing for Canada's second-largest bank by market value?

In this case, it's all about Scotiabank's impressive track record of success in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Scotiabank derives almost a third of its profit from its international operations. The bank recorded $1.054-billion in profit last year from the division, which includes 494 bank branches in Mexico and extensive operations in Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Citing Scotiabank's growth and the prospects for the region, Mr. Cramer added the bank to his “Mad Money Foreign Legion” — a list of stocks that he recommends to investors who want exposure to businesses that operate outside the United States.

With Cuban leader Fidel Castro ailing, Mr. Cramer suggested Scotiabank may be the institution best positioned to become a banking force in the country when and if there is a regime change.

“Given its incredibly strong presence in the Caribbean, I think it will be the bank to play Cuba when Castro joins Che, Ho Chi Min, Lenin and some of those other guys. I see BNS as the logical heir to Hyman Roth, when it comes to Cuba. That's before he tried to offload it to Michael [Corleone],” Mr. Cramer told viewers, referring to events in the movie.

In the film, Mr. Roth, who is loosely based on real-life gangster Meyer Lansky, is just about to enter into a lucrative deal with the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista to open a group of Cuban hotels and casinos.

“Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without . . . the goddamn Justice Department and the FBI, 90 miles away, in partnership with a friendly government,” Mr. Roth, played by acting teacher Lee Strasberg, tells newly minted godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). “Ninety miles! It's nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we're bigger than U.S. Steel.”

Of course, the characters' plans are soon thwarted by Mr. Castro's revolution in 1959.

Scotiabank, in fact, once operated eight bank branches on the island before the Batista regime's ouster.

Currently, Cuba's banking system is closed to foreign investment and Mr. Switzer brushed off speculation that the company is considering a return to the island, populated by 11 million.

“It's premature to talk about that, but certainly we are very strong in the Caribbean. We actually had several branches in Cuba in the 1950s, and we're always interested in expanding in the Caribbean and Central and Latin America. It's something that's not really on our minds right now, but you never know,” he said.

And what does the bank think of being compared to the shady Mr. Roth, who is rubbed out after engineering a failed assassination attempt on Michael Corleone?

“I think everybody knows that Mr. Cramer lards his very sound commentary with some outlandish comments and comedy. That's why he's so popular,” Mr. Switzer said.