Financial Sector: On the Mend or in the Mire?

Today we examine a couple of recent stories from Fantasyland – otherwise known as Wall Street. Seven of America’s largest banks repaid their TARP borrowings to the US Treasury yesterday, in the process providing one more occasion for hopeful investors to proclaim the end of the credit crisis. The details of the repayments were as follows:

• Morgan Stanley repaid $10 billion

• Goldman Sachs – $10 billion

• BB&T – $3.1 billion

• US Bancorp – $6.6 billion

• Bank of New York Mellon – $3 billion

• Capital One – $3.57 billion

• American Express – $3.39 billion.

Lost in the euphoric brouhaha over the TARP repayments was the dispiriting news that Standard & Poor’s had downgraded the credit ratings of 18 large American banks, including one of the seven that repaid its TARP loan!

Incredibly, the US Treasury deemed Capital One sufficiently healthy to repay its $3.57 billion loan while, at the very same moment, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit card firm to BBB – just two notches above “junk.” Standard & Poor’s also characterized the credit outlook for Capital One as “negative.”

We would not place much faith in the analyses of either the Treasury Department or Standard & Poor’s. But we are nevertheless fascinated by their conflicting conclusions. Maybe they’re both right. Maybe Capital One is in fine shape today, as the Treasury Department’s stress test implies. But maybe the credit card company will be in miserable shape tomorrow, as Standard & Poor’s downgrade implies.

As investors, we see these conflicting assessments of Capital One as a metaphor for the entire American financial sector. This sector is a hodgepodge of conflicting opinions, data points and risk/reward assessments. Both sides of every trade in the financial sector can point to some sort of fundamental justification. The buyers see a sector on the mend; the sellers see a sector in the mire.

Your California editor is not smart enough to know which assessment is correct; but he is fearful enough to recognize a potential tar pit when he sees one. So he’s got no problem watching others wade into the water while he remains back on the bank…at least for now.

Curiously, bank stocks have gotten worse, ever since the government told us things are getting better. Most finance company stocks have been performing poorly, ever since the upbeat headlines about the “stress test” results first crossed the newswires. The BKX Index of bank stocks has tumbled nearly 19% since the close of trading on May 8, the first trading day after the Federal Reserve announced the “better than expected” results of its stress tests on America’s 19 largest financial institutions.

The TARP repayment announcements did not alter the downward trend of the BKX. Since June 9, when the Treasury Department disclosed which banks may repay their TARP loans, the BKX Index has dropped 5%.


Apparently, the finance company sector of the stock market has shifted into the “good news is no longer good news” phase. The BKX’s dazzling 135% rally between March 6 at May 8 may have adequately “priced in” all the good news that is likely to emerge for a while from the financial services industry.

Furthermore, the conspicuous recent weakness of the BKX Index is probably not good news for the overall stock market, since financial shares have been leading the market – both to the upside and the downside – during the last year and a half.

To cite just one example of this phenomenon, between February 1 and May 31 of 2008, the BKX slumped 21% while the S&P 500 actually advanced 1%. But during the ensuing month and a half, the S&P fell 13%. The BKX initiated a similar “bearish divergence” in early December last year, as it tumbled 35% between December 5 at February 6. The S&P 500 barely budged during this timeframe, but fell 20% over the next 30 days.

Obviously, the most recent decline of the BKX does not guarantee a subsequent decline in the S&P 500. But neither does it give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. So let’s call the weakness of the BKX a warning sign. Heed the warning, if you are so inclined.