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A second but higher risk opportunity is in select regional banks. Coming into March, regional banks were already at the low end of their long-term valuation range. In March, the regional bank index declined 29%, and many well-run regional banks declined more than the index. We admit there are many new negatives for regional banks in the aftermath of the Bank Crisis. Still, we think they have become too cheap and have the potential to outperform as we get clarity on the going forward business model.
We see four new negatives for regional banks: 1) uninsured deposits will decline unless deposit insurance limits are increased, 2) banks will operate with higher liquidity going forward, 3) deposit repricing is accelerating, and 4) regulatory uncertainty is high.
One of the largest surprises from the Bank Crisis of 2023 was the high level of uninsured deposits that all banks held. We believe that the concern regarding deposit haircuts at SIVB has caused anxiety among depositors across the country. Unless deposit insurance limits are raised, which looks doubtful at the moment, we think the banks will operate with lower deposit levels as uninsured depositors find more comfortable places for their cash.
We think the FDIC should raise the limit on deposit insurance to $1 million for consumer accounts and $5 million for commercial accounts. The $250k deposit insurance limit, put in place in 2008, has not been adjusted and is now too low. For any small to medium-sized companies, there is variability in their cash flow that prevents them from keeping bank account balances below $250k.
The main argument we’ve heard against raising the deposit limit is “moral hazard.” We think this is an unsound argument. Commentators use moral hazard to scare people into believing that if depositors don’t monitor a bank’s counterparty risk, then bank management will run amok and take too much risk. However, in our career, we have never heard a bank management team say, “We dialed down risk because we couldn’t get this big depositor to keep his money in the bank.” The people who scream moral hazard are putting forth the argument that depositors should be responsible for monitoring their bank’s risk management. This is the job of bank regulators. As we saw with SIVB, these bank regulators did a poor job of supervising the bank. The bank’s equity and debt holders should therefore serve as another line of defense in risk management after the regulators. We would argue that the equity holders at SIVB also did an inadequate job of forcing the bank to take less risk. We do not believe depositors should act as the risk managers for banks, and as such we are in favor of higher deposit insurance.
We think higher levels of deposit insurance will help regional banks retain deposits. The U.S. economy needs regional banks because they play an important role in creating credit for the economy, specifically for small and middle-sized businesses. If deposit insurance limits are not increased, then regional banks will likely have to shrink, which will reduce the availability of credit. Less credit means the economy will grow more slowly or even possibly shrink.
Banks are going to run with a higher level of liquidity. For a banker, there is nothing more terrifying than a liquidity scare. We will have a period of lower loan growth while bankers transition to more liquid balance sheets. Once bank balance sheets reflect higher liquidity, banks will generate lower profits due to the decline in loans as a percentage of deposits. Bank securities portfolios will be shorter in duration and more liquid and will yield less, but the banks and the banking system will be safer.
Deposit costs are accelerating for banks. The media focus on the Bank Crisis of March 2023 has caused bank customers to search for higher yields on their excess cash. As you know, banks were slow to raise the interest rates they paid on deposits. During the low interest rate environment of the last 15 years, bank customers had gotten used to holding excess cash in their checking accounts because searching for higher yields was not worth their time. With money market rates approaching 5%, depositors had started to change their behavior and were looking for higher yielding places to keep their cash. The bank failures in March accelerated this phenomenon and deposit costs across the banking industry increased.
Our fourth headwind is the uncertainty of new capital and liquidity regulations targeted at regional banks. In the current environment we believe buybacks are off the table for the industry. With the need for capital across the Financial sector, we believe it is unlikely that bankers are going to buy back much stock in this environment even given the low equity prices. However, we have identified a few banks that are down more than 20% that have small securities portfolios, meaning they don’t have any of the mark-to-market issues that SIVB had. These select regional banks have been strong performers historically.
Despite these four new negative issues for banks, we believe regional bank stock prices have overshot to the downside. We estimate these four issues will cause a 10% decline in earnings, which is not bad compared to a 30% decline in stock prices. We believe the banks will be able to overcome some of these negatives with wider spreads on loans going forward. We believe we must focus on the best management teams that have shown the ability to grow while maintaining discipline on expenses.
Some banks we have identified include Axos Financial, United Missouri Bank, Webster Financial, and Pinnacle Financial. These banks are strong performers and don’t have the same problems that SIVB and others had with their bond portfolios. These banks have strong deposit franchises and have posted strong loan growth for many years. We believe they will be able to balance the demands of the new banking environment and post strong results.
Disclaimer: The discussion of any security is meant solely as an illustration of our investment and thought process and should NOT be considered as a recommendation or suggestion to buy or sell any securities. Before you make any investment, do your own research and talk to your own financial adviser. Information in this report is received from external sources. Therefore, we can make no guarantee as to the completeness or accuracy of the information provided.