Monday, October 16, 2017

Bank Stocks Are No Longer Cheap, but They’re Still Worth Owning

  
The Globe and Mail, David Berman, 16 October 2017

The great Canadian bank stock sale is over. But don't worry: There are more gains ahead.

After a five-week rally, bank stocks have jumped more than 8 per cent on average. They have now emerged as clear leaders within the S&P/TSX composite index, after briefly lagging the index earlier this year.

But valuations that were cheap by historical measures near the start of September, before the current rally kicked in, are now in line with the long-term average. While that doesn't mean that bank stocks are overpriced, it does suggest that they're no longer a steal.

If you recall, Canadian banks were going nowhere for the four-month period between May and August (inclusive), marking a curious departure from what looked to be an upbeat operating backdrop at the time.

I wrote about this apparent mismatch on Sept. 5. The Canadian economy was humming, the price of crude oil was moving up and banks had reported strong third-quarter profits that were, on average, 11 per cent higher than last year. Best of all, the Bank of Canada was raising its key interest rate, which generally increases bank profits on their loans.

Add an average dividend yield of 4.1 per cent, and – barring a housing market catastrophe – Canadian bank stocks looked hard to pass up.

Yet, share prices were going nowhere. At their low point, on Sept. 7, stocks were trading at levels seen in early December.

Investors appear to have recognized the big opportunity here and, five weeks later, bank stocks are no longer looking unloved.

The S&P/TSX composite commercial banks index, which consists of the Big Six banks, Laurentian Bank of Canada and Canadian Western Bank, has rallied 8.3 per cent from its September lows. The sector has outpaced the 5.6-per-cent gain in the broader Canadian market – itself an impressive feat – and demonstrated that when things are good for Canada, they're very good for the banks.

Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and National Bank of Canada, in particular, have hit record highs within the past week.

Bank stock valuations are now in line with 10-year historical averages. According to data from RBC Dominion Securities, the Big Six bank stocks trade at 11.6-times estimated 2018 profit, which is above the historical average of 10.9-times estimated profit.

Bank stocks also trade at their average historical price-to-book value of 1.8. And that 4.1-per-cent dividend yield before the rally has retreated to 3.8 per cent, attributable to rising share prices.

A nice buying opportunity has passed, but there is no need to fret: If you're inclined to make bets on individual stocks, rather than own the entire sector (I own units in the BMO Equal Weight Banks exchange-traded fund, which gives me exposure to the Big Six), good deals can still be found.

Among the biggest banks, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce stands out with price-to-book and price-to-earnings multiples that are below the peer average. The stock also comes with a sector-leading 4.6-per-cent dividend yield.

CIBC has another thing going for it: The stock lagged the returns of its big bank peers in 2016. As I've pointed out in previous articles, lagging bank stocks have a tendency to close the gap with their peers, meaning that last year's underperformer tends to be this year's outperformer.

So far in 2017, CIBC has bucked this trend with a year-to-date gain of just 2.5 per cent – compared with a group average gain of 6.8 per cent. Perhaps this stock-picking strategy won't work this year. Or perhaps CIBC remains an outstanding buying opportunity.

But there's another reason to stick with bank stocks following the group's impressive rally. While valuations have risen from bargain levels, they're not excessive today. That means there is room for stocks to rise further with profit growth, dividend hikes and interest-rate increases – all of which seem likely.

There are good times to buy Canadian bank stocks; there are not bad times to own them.
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