Wells Fargo: Financial Winner

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Wells Fargo was the winner among the largest U.S. banks Thursday, with shares rising 1 percent to close at $35.46.

The broad indices declined for a second straight day, with carryover from the Federal Reserve's release on Wednesday of minutes for the Federal Open Market Committee's meetings late last month. There was growing disagreement among committee members on when the central bank might curtail its "highly accommodative" stimulus policy, which includes holding the federal funds rate in a range of zero to 0.25 percent, along with monthly purchases of $85 billion in long-term securities.

(Read More: The Mysterious Minutes of the Federal Reserve)

KBW analyst Christopher Mutascio said in a report Thursday that certain comments made by committee members were "more dovish than hawkish," supporting his view that "the Fed is going to leave short-term interest rates low for a longer time than some currently believe."

The KBW Bank Index was down over 1 percent to close at 53.87, with all 24 index components showing declines except for Wells Fargo and BB&T, which was up slightly to close at $30.04.

The Labor Department said Thursday that initial unemployment claims for the week ended Feb. 16 increased by 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000, from a revised 342,000 the previous week. Economists expected claims to rise to 347,000, according to Zacks.

The four-week moving average for jobless claims rose to 360,750 from the previous average of 352,750.

Markit Economics said Thursday its manufacturing output index for February showed the "sharpest rise in manufacturing output in almost two years," with a reading of 58.1, increasing from 56.8 in January. However, the Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) came in at 55.2, down from 55.8 in January. An index reading of over 50 indicates economic expansion.

Markit said in its release that "incoming new work received by manufacturers also rose strongly during February. However, the rate of increase eased from January's 32-month peak."

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) said existing-home sales in the U.S. increased by 0.4 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.92 million from a revised 4.90 million in December. The sales pace in January was up 9.1 percent from a year earlier.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said "we've transitioned to a seller's market in much of the country," and that "buyer traffic is 40 percent above a year ago."

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said manufacturers responding to its local Business Outlook Survey for February "reported declines in activity this month," and that "indicators for general activity and new orders have now registered negative readings for the past two months." The survey's diffusion index of current activity came in at minus 12.5 for February, declining from minus 5.8 in January. Economists had expected 4 for February.

Wells Fargo

Shares of Wells Fargo have returned 4 percent this year, following a 27 percent gain in 2012. The shares trade for 1.6 times tangible book value, according to Thomson Reuters Bank Insight, and for 9.1 times the consensus 2014 earnings estimate of $3.89. The consensus 2013 EPS estimate is $3.65.

Based on a quarterly payout of $0.25, the shares have a dividend yield of 2.82 percent.

Wells Fargo's valuation to the consensus forward earnings estimate is only slightly above the rest of the "big four" U.S. banks, despite being the strongest and steadiest earner among the group for many years. The company's operating return on average assets (ROA) was 1.41 percent, rising steadily over the past five years, from a low of 0.44 percent in 2008. Here's a quick comparison to the rest of the big four:

  • Shares of Bank of America were down over 3 percent on Thursday to close at $11.41. The stock trades for 8.9 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $1.29. The company's ROA over the past five years has ranged from a negative 0.09 percent to a positive return of 0.26 percent. Bank of America is arguably the most risky play among the big four, with a political target on its back and legacy mortgage risk from the acquisition of Countrywide Financial in 2008.
  • Citigroup was down 2 percent to close at $42.35. The company's shares trade for 8.1 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $5.20. Citi's ROA has ranged from a negative 1.28 percent to positive 0.57 percent over the past five years. Citigroup is in the midst of a multiyear transformation, as the company frees up excess capital by winding down non-core assets in the Citi Holdings subsidiary. The company on Tuesday agreed to acquire a $7 billion private label billion credit card portfolio from Capital One. Acquisitions are among several possible strategies to help Citi recapture its $55 billion deferred tax asset.
  • Shares of JPMorgan Chase declined 1 percent to close at $48.25, trading for 8.4 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $5.77. The company's ROA improved over the past five years from 0.21 percent to 0.94 percent. The improved results in 2012 came despite widely publicized hedge trading losses that totaled $6.2 billion.

As part of the consolidation of KBW's bank stock coverage after being acquired by Stifel Nicolaus, Mutascio was transferred to the KBW staff, and last Friday upgraded KBW's rating for Wells Fargo to "outperform" from "market perform."

Mutascio's price target for Wells Fargo's shares is $42, and he estimates the company will earn $3.59 a share this year with earnings rising to $3.83 a share in 2014.

The analyst said in a report that with "the lack of differentiation in the valuations between highly profitable banks and those banks that are still generating ROAs of sub-1 percent, we believe the market is providing investors the ability to upgrade the quality of their bank stock portfolios at no extra charge." Mutascio also said the low forward P/E for Wells Fargo "is based on fears that the company is over-earning in the current mortgage banking environment."

According to Mutascio, Wells Fargo has four main offsets to declining mortgage volume and lower gains on mortgage sales. These include increased income from loan servicing, the "eventual reduction" in mortgage repurchase requests from investors, declining expenses following the foreclosure settlement with federal regulators, and the elimination of forgone revenue from the retention of mortgage originations."

—By TheStreet.com's Philip van Doorn

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