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Forget earnings. The banks need to see this before they’re a buy, says Piper Jaffray

As major banks report quarterly earnings Friday morning, one technician sees a different test for the financials sector.

"We're actually neutral the financials right now," Craig Johnson, chief market technician at Piper Jaffray, told CNBC's "Trading Nation" on Thursday. "We've been really watching that 2 to 10 spread. We need to see that widen out then it would be a really healthy sign."

The 10-year/2-year U.S. Treasury spread has been narrowing since the wave of sell-offs in equities at the beginning of February. The spread hit a year-to-date high of 78 basis points on Feb. 9 but has since narrowed to 48 basis points.

A narrower credit spread represents a smaller difference in yield between the shorter-maturity 2-year bond and the longer-maturity 10-year bond. Wider credit spread often indicates bullish economic sentiment among investors.

"We agree with Craig that in the short run this is a neutral," said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Washington Crossing Advisers, during the same "Trading Nation" appearance. "Net interest margins are critical. You need to see ... the steepening of the yield curve to see a gradual improvement on the top line for these financials."

The greater the spread on banks' net interest margin the higher their profitability.

While Johnson waits for improvement in the credit spread, he sees the technicals as still supportive for financials. The XLF financials ETF, he says, has pulled back to the uptrend support line established since the 2016 lows.

A closer look at J.P. Morgan shows off the potential in the broader sector. At about 12 percent of the index, it provides clues as to how the rest of the financials sector might swing through the rest of the year.

"It looks very similar to the XLF," he said. "It's pulled right back to support. Looks like it's retesting it. Looks like it's holding it. Looks like it's a buy-in here from our perspective."

Over the long run, Morganlander also sees plenty of upside for the sector. He counts the growth factors assisting the group.

"One, economic growth across the globe has been quite vibrant. Two, you also have credit trends, particularly, with the consumer that look also pretty stable and growing. Thirdly, you have deregulation that we believe will give a big earnings lift not only to 2018 but also to 2019," said Morganlander.

Those tailwinds should continue to benefit the financials sector through to the end of the decade, he added.

The financials companies in the XLF ETF are expected to post an average 28 percent increase in earnings over fiscal 2018 and 10 percent in both 2019 and 2020.

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Disclosure: Washington Crossing Advisors has a position in the XLF financials ETF.

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Trading Nation is a multimedia financial news program that shows investors and traders how to use the news of the day to their advantage. This is where experts from across the financial world – including macro strategists, technical analysts, stock-pickers, and traders who specialize in options, currencies, and fixed income – come together to find the best ways to capitalize on recent developments in the market. Trading Nation: Where headlines become opportunities.

Sara Eisen

Sara Eisen joined CNBC in December 2013 as a correspondent, focusing on the global consumer. She is co-anchor of the 10AM ET hour of CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" (M-F, 9AM-11AM ET), broadcast from Post 9 at the New York Stock Exchange.

In March 2018, Eisen was named co-anchor of CNBC's "Power Lunch" (M-F, 1PM-3PM ET), which broadcasts from CNBC Global Headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

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