More positive on banks than in 16 years: Analyst

Veteran bank analyst Mike Mayo is sounding the all-clear on the U.S. financial system, and is more positive on bank stocks than he has been in the past 16 years.

That's because asset quality is stronger than it's been in a decade, balance sheets are stronger than they've been in two decades and capital is higher than it's been in five decades, the research analyst for CLSA said in an interview with CNBC's "Closing Bell" on Friday.

"The balance sheets, the foundation of the economic system as defined by the banking system is on solid footing."

The financials were higher Friday, with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase hitting new multiyear highs.

While the regulatory environment post-financial crisis is one risk to the sector, it has also had a positive impact, said Mayo, author of "Exile on Wall Street: One Analyst's Fight to Save the Big Banks from Themselves."

Mike Mayo, managing director at CLSA
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
Mike Mayo, managing director at CLSA

Regulation has hurt revenue growth, but the flip side is it has dramatically reduced risk," he said. "So I'll take $1 of earnings today anytime over $1 of earnings before the financial crisis because the risk of those new earnings are a lot less."

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With the Federal Reserve poised to begin raising interest rates, perhaps sometime this year, bank stocks are the obvious beneficiary.

However, Mayo is still selective when it comes to picking stocks in the event that rates don't rise much.

He likes Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan.

"If those rates don't go up, those four bank stocks in particular still have extra earnings levers they can pull to accelerate earnings growth," he said.

Mayo is particularly bullish on Citigroup, which has not yet busted through its post-crisis high. He thinks it could double from current levels.

"Citigroup is knocking on the door. They would benefit from higher interest rates … but they are also a unique, global self-help story," he said.

"I've been following Citigroup for more than two decades. This is perhaps the best opportunity in those 20 years to own Citigroup, given the level of risk."

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However, while he thinks the financial industry is on firm footing because of strong balance sheets, good credit quality and more oversight by regulators, there is one issue that could derail things.

"The biggest issue to watch over the next five years or so is if interest rates go up too much, too quickly; that's the risk for the next financial crisis."

Disclosures: CLSA receives or has received compensation from Bank of NY Mellon and JPMorgan Chase for noninvestment banking services. Mayo or household members have a financial interest in the securities of Citigroup, KeyCorp, Morgan Stanley and State Street.

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