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3 Attractive Banking Stocks to Consider Now, 1 to Avoid

Thursday - 5/23/2013, 4:07pm  ET

Since last decade's banking crisis, among the nation's trillion-dollar asset banks there has been stratification both in terms of profitability and public reputation. Wells Fargo is always a winner. JPMorgan Chase has come next, then probably Citigroup, followed by Bank of America at the rear. I am going to take a look at Bank of America, this country's second-largest bank by assets, to see if it shows any sign of emerging from its current, informal position.

One more big litigation matter resolved...

One thing to remember about Bank of America these past several years is that things are never boring. On May 1, the big North Carolina-based bank restated its first quarter 2013 to reflect the comprehensive settlement between the firm and MBIA. It is not that often that any financial transaction benefits both sides, but the market seemed to indicate that this particular deal did just that. MBIA shares increased more than 50% in the week following May 1, and Bank of America shares are treading around their 52-week high.

The substance of the earnings restatement was to reduce Bank of America's earnings by $1.6 billion pretax, reduce its common capital ratio by 10 basis points to approximately 10.5%, but also to raise its Basel III capital by 10 basis points to 9.5%. However, if you take all these one-time changes out of the equation, Bank of America's first-quarter income came to $2.6 billion, or $0.20 per share, roughly four times the $653 million, or $0.03 per share, in last year's first quarter.

But nothing is ever simple with Bank of America, and last year's first quarterly earnings were depressed by a pretax negative value allowance due to narrowing credit spreads. Analysts had expected earnings of $0.22 per share in the first quarter of 2013. The $0.20 per share in earnings equaled a 0.5% return on assets.

Bank of America has several different cost-cutting measures in place, collectively known as "New BAC." The program has involved tens of thousands of job cuts, and allowed non-interest expenses to drop by roughly $1 billion compared to the first quarter of 2012.

So, the question remains: can Bank of America retain the profitability that defined the firm in the last decade, when it routinely posted returns on assets threefold higher than it currently generates? A bank of this size should at least be returning $5 billion per quarter. The cost structure is still out of whack; despite the non-interest expense decline, the bank's efficiency ratio was 76.6, well above a healthy level for any bank. Yet the company is some 300 branches and 16,000 employees "lighter" than a year ago, and further employee reductions cannot be good for the revenue side.

Revenue is the way forward for Bank of America, and its paltry 2.4% interest margin in the quarter is not much help. Further credit improvements, such as the company's 30%, or $700 million reduction in its provision for credit losses versus a year ago are not sustainable. I see the company's profits hovering right around a 0.5% return on assets for the rest of this year.

But beyond that, much of Bank of America's future will depend on pending and not as yet filed litigation. That is no way to run a bank, or in my opinion, to invest your money.

Signs of life

If Bank of America has been the weakest big bank in terms of its balance sheet and income statements, then Regions Financial has possibly been the weakest among the country's large, regional banks. But after enduring the indignities of selling the previous "crown jewel" of the company in 2012 and diluting existing stockholders with a common stock offering shortly afterwards, Regions is settling down nicely.

In the first quarter of 2013 earnings came to $327 million, or $0.23 per share, up from $145 million, or $0.11 a share a year ago. Analysts had expected $0.20 per share. The earnings amounted to a 1.1% return on assets.

Regions is still in "shrink itself to health" mode. Despite an increase of four basis points in its net interest margin from a year ago, net interest income in the fourth quarter fell about $30 million, or 4% from the year-ago quarter. Non-interest income fell about $25 million, or 5%. But overcoming these are continued improvements in the bank's asset quality, which led to a mere $10 million provision for loan losses in the quarter compared to $117 million a year earlier, and the payment of Region's TARP loans saved the bank $46 million.

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