Citigroup Inc (C), Wells Fargo & Co (WFC), Bank of America Corp (BAC): Analyzing Three Hot Banking Picks

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The past twelve months have been positive for financial companies, with finance becoming one of the best-performing industries with a return of 22.1% (DJ US Financials Index) and outperforming Dow Jones Industrial Average return of 14.8%. Key drivers of this strong performance were the improvement of the housing market, low valuation multiples, and market sentiment driven by a bullish market. In fact, Jim Cramer called the banking sector “the most undervalued sector,” and several prominent investors have been investing in some of the leading names in banking. In this article, I analyze the potential for further gains from Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C), Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC), and Bank of America Corp (NYSE:BAC).

Citigroup still looks attractive

Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C)

Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) experienced a 48.6% return in the past year, driven by its good performance across business lines. Efficiency gains and growth in loans and deposits were key factors that offset a challenging environment of credit compression. Increased revenue from the company’s Investment Banking division also contributed significantly to the bottom line. The 29% year-over-year reduction on Citi Holdings’ assets from 11% of Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) assets at the beginning of 2012 to 8% of the assets in 2013 helped to improve earnings. Finally, strengthening capital ratios, asset quality improvement, and earnings-per-share growth will ease pressures on capital needs. In fact, the Federal Reserve allowed Citigroup to initiate a common stock buyback program of $1.2 billion after successfully passing the 2013 Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review stress test.

Looking to the future, the share repurchase program will support Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C)’s valuation and might bolster the stock price. Management is expected to keep reducing Citi Holdings’ portfolio in favorable terms (like in the recent sale of the Brazil-based consumer unit, Credicard), and the recent purchase of the Best Buy card portfolio from Capital One will allow Citigroup to continue growing its retail services segment. In addition, Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) has one of the strongest international franchises. David Tepper mentioned this in a January Bloomberg interview:

You can look at the earnings estimates on Citi, and we think it potentially has 50% upside from here…get Jamie Dimon on the phone, ask him if there’s one franchise he’d like to buy in the world…he’ll say Citi’s foreign business.

Although Citigroup fundamentals have improved and management is on the right track, risks remain present. For example, the extension of the low interest rate environment or a crisis triggered by events in the Eurozone could have a negative impact on Citigroup and others in the financial industry.

In spite of the recent positive performance, Citigroup is still trading at attractive prices and shows further upside potential. Its price-to-book ratio is 0.8, below the industry median of 0.9, and also below its own historic values. Barron’s market consensus on Citigroup indicates a clear overweight, with a median stock price target of $55. Merrill Lynch recently reiterated its “buy” recommendation on Citigroup, arguing that the company’s strong capital ratios will allow it to increase the capital return to shareholders and possibly acquire US earnings to accelerate the utilization of its Deferred Tax Assets (DTA).

Excellent return on equity and a diversified business model

Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) yielded a return of 14.3% over the past twelve months, underperforming the S&P 500 which returned 17.9% over the same period. Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) counts with a well-diversified business model that provides revenues across different segments, reducing revenue risk and volatility. Trefis estimates that the company’s Mortgage Lending segment accounts for 26.2% of Wells Fargo $200 billion market capitalization, whereas its Securities and Trading  segment accounts for 19% and Loans (Commercial Real Estate, Consumer, Commercial, and Foreign Loans) accounts of 18% of the price estimate. Undoubtedly, one of the company’s key activities in the past year was mortgage loan origination, which experienced an incredible growth of 46% from $357 billion in 2011 to $524 billion in 2012 to reach a market share of 29% of all home-loans issued in the U.S. in 2012.

A significant portion of this mortgage activity was refinancing loans, but the refinancing boom cycle is coming to an end and the key risk is whether the housing market recovery will push new mortgages fast enough or if Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) will be able to compensate the expected decline in origination activity with its other sources of revenue.

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