Bank Strategy – 2017/2018 Review

During the 2007/2008 financial crisis, bank stocks were one place many investors fled from – like herds of lemmings.  I can’t say this was unreasonable as these companies sustained blow after blow – some deserved and some not.  When a company such as Lehman collapses,  mortgage  GSEs are federalized and mortgage lending comes to a grinding halt one has to consider the Chicken Little scenario – is the sky really falling?  From this systemic failure emerged a new dawn on the heels of legislation, notably Dodd-Frank.  Though far from perfect, this bill in 2010 established a floor from which the system could be rebuilt.

To paraphrase Warren Buffett, my view was this fear and dysfunction presented an opportunity.  With the dust beginning to settle, in early 2013 I dipped my toes back into Financials.  With the exception of Prosperity Bank (PB), which I classified as a Core position at that time along with a few others, these holdings – peaking at about 32% of the total portfolio in aggregate – didn’t exceed the 1% threshold individually.  Financials currently hold 29.9% and are trending down.  Truth be told, this group did provide the octane enabling my portfolio to consistently exceed the benchmark.

The Dividend Diplomats employ a similar small bank strategy but our approaches differ.  Whereas their baseline is the dividend screen process, I rely more on size and geography.  This is due primarily to embedded distortions in a TARP (and post-TARP) world as well as historical factors regarding bank failures.  For example, Lanny’s Isabella Bank purchase wouldn’t make it onto my list as I consider Michigan banks inherently risky due to the number of failures within the state during the last crisis.  You could posit a macro versus micro view in our perspectives.

Since I began this strategy I’ve periodically reported my results with my 2015 and 2016 reviews.  I was remiss earlier this year as the pace of significant mergers decreased in the post-Trump world.  This activity is now accelerating due to two factors, I think.  The first being the Dodd-Frank modifications enacted in May making it less onerous for banks of a certain size to combine.  The second being rising interest rates.  This one is less obvious as rising rates should be a boon to banks.  However, the spread between long and short rates is compressing (perhaps inverting soon?) which is where much of the profit is derived.  So the results, please?

Bank Strategy
YEAR TTL FULL PREM REVERSE % NOTES
2014 6 1 2 21.9% 41 positions
2015 16 3 0 38.7% 49 positions
2016 8 2 0 13.8% 58 positions
2017 16 1 0 25.8% 62 positions
2018 15 5 1 19.23% 78 positions

Note: through 7 Oct 2018

Of interest is that the majority of 2017 was mostly a year of consolidation with smaller banks (usually thinly traded or private) being acquired by one of my holdings.  2018 is interesting in that a number of mergers have a cash component which adds to the complexity of determining the ‘real’ valuation resulting in some initial pricing or recommendation assessments by firms on Wall Street.  I bought into two of these before the assessment changed in my favor (resulting in an unanticipated unrealized gain).

Now that this sector is pretty much fairly valued unless some compelling opportunity presents itself I’ll hope for some of the remaining 73 to be acquired and place my cash elsewhere. 🙂

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Harvey

Hurricane

Mother Nature certainly is a beast at times.  Watching her ongoing treachery on the television is heartbreaking to say the least.  Looking out the window, I see sporadic rain – which will continue for a few days – but nothing of the magnitude being experienced just a couple hundred miles away.

As my mind wanders a little due to the same images being replayed over and over, I can’t help but thinking of the economic impact of Harvey.  Being resident in Texas, my portfolio has a little bias towards my home state.  In a similar vein, which companies stand to lose – or gain – from this tragedy?  I figured I’d lay out my thoughts – which probably are incomplete – as a basis for determining whether my portfolio can weather (pun intended) a storm of this severity.

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Small Banking Revisited

Periodically I encounter an article that hits at the core of one of my strategies.  As many of  you know, I’m currently a little overweight financials with an emphasis on regional banks.  This was not always the case as I (fortunately) exited the sector in late 2007  reentering only in early 2013.  My five year pause was bookended by what Richard J. Parsons refers to as the Great Panic of 2008-2009.  His article, Finding Alpha In Reliable Dividend Banks(14 June 2017) struck a chord with me and illustrated some of the style I came to embrace for a time. Though I’m not selling my banks, other than special situations, I’m currently not a buyer either.  If you are a bank investor (or considering being one) I’d recommend reading his article.

His article highlights 30 regionals that actually raised dividends during the Panic.  By comparison, my hypothesis was segmented into three ‘buckets’ which were:
1.Good dividend payers
2.Stock dividend payers
3.Acquisition candidates

Although he includes some stock payers (CMBH, AROW, SBSI, and FLIC (roundups on splits)) this is not his article’s focus.  I’ve written on these before so I’ll exclude them.

His article also points out that only one of the original 30 was acquired which is a slight disappointment when one of my goals is to obtain a merger premium.  Several on his list were acquirers which kind of proves my rationale to expand the universe to include potential acquisition targets in my bank holdings a couple of years ago.

Leaving us with his list.  One notable point is his geographic analysis.  “Certain states are more likely to be home to these reliable dividend banks: Indiana, Texas, California, Kentucky, Missouri, and upper state New York.”  This melds with my findings though I attributed this to state regulatory agencies as certain states had disproportionate numbers of bank failures.  Therefore I excluded western (California) and southern US banks.  To his mix, I found Pennsylvania to be a viable candidate as well.  This difference could be that mutual conversions (notably preeminent in PA, NY, NJ, VA and MA) were identified as likely targets by my study.

Another note on his analysis, “…a few critical factors influence long-term success in banking: hands-on expert management…”  In fact he elaborates a little on this in the comment stream.  A tidbit is both Missouri banks on his list were established by the Kemper family.

So the actual question is how do my portfolio holdings stack up against his list?  Half of the thirty are owned.  Of the nine owned by Richard, seven are owned (one obtained via a merger).  One being in California was excluded by geographic screening.  I’m not sure offhand though, why I excluded CBU out of New York.  My primary takeaway from his article was a validation of my strategy and I need to further investigate a few.

His complete list follows:

Access National ANCX 1.4B VA
Arrow Financial Corp. AROW 2.7B NY
Auburn National Bancorp AUBN .8B AL
BancFirst Corp.   BANF 7.2B OK
Bar Harbor Bankshares  BHB 3.4B ME
Bank of Marin Bancorp BMRC 2.0B CA
Bryn Mawr Bank Corp. BMTC 3.3B PA
Bank of Oklahoma   BOKF 32.6B OK
Commerce Bancshares   CBSH 25.3B MO
Community Bank System CBU 8.9B NY
Cullen/Frost Bankers CFR 30.5B TX
Community Trust Bancorp CTBI 4.0B KY
First Capital  FCAP .8B IN
First of Long Island Corp.  FLIC 3.6B NY
Farmers & Merchants Bancorp  FMCB 3.0B CA
Horizon Bancorp   HBNC 3.2B IN
National Bankshares NKSH 1.2B VA
Norwood Financial Corp.  NWFL 1.1B PA
Bank of the Ozarks OZRK 19.2B AR
Prosperity Bancshares  PB 22.5B TX
People’s United Financial, Inc.   PBCT 40.2B CT
Stock Yards Bancorp  SYBT 3.0B KY
Tompkins Financial Corp.  TMP 6.3B NY
United Bankshares UBSI 14.8B WV
UMB Financial Corp.  UMBF 20.6B MO
Westamerica   WABC 5.4B CA
Washington Trust  WASH 4.4B RI
First Source  SRCE 5.5B IN
First Financial THFF 3.0B IN
Southside Bancshares SBSI 5.7B TX
Bold-owned by Richard, Italics-owned by me