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Many of the regional bank stocks had quite a good run in December as investors became more optimistic that 2011 would be a big year for acquisitions and consolidation in the industry. This optimism was fueled in part by Bank of Montreal's (NYSE: BMO ) acquisition of troubled regional bank Marshall & Ilsley (NYSE: MI ) that led to a 17.4% increase in the SPDR KBW Regional Banking (NYSE: KRE ) exchange-traded fund in the month of December.
While I don't believe there is going to be a great deal of premium bank acquisitions in 2011, I do think consolidation will continue in the industry as more banks fail throughout the year. In 2010, 157 banks failed, and though the pace is expected to slow in the coming year, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair believes failures will remain at an elevated level. No one likes bank failures, but there is one stock that trades at a very cheap valuation that I believe could help investors profit from these failures if billionaire investor Gerald J. Ford decides to deploy some of his holding company's cash war chest in that direction.
Have cash, will deploy
The holding company, known as Hilltop Holdings (NYSE: HTH ) , was formerly a mobile home operator called Affordable Residential Communities with a small property and casualty insurance subsidiary based in Texas called NLASCO. In 2007, the mobile home business was sold for $1.8 billion and the company was reorganized as Hilltop Holdings, which includes the insurance business and an extremely large pile of cash for Mr. Ford to reinvest.
The large pile of cash and the talents of Ford managing this cash are what excited me about this stock. The company's most recent quarterly report describes the structure as "a holding company that is endeavoring to make opportunistic acquisitions or effect a business combination. In connection with that strategy, we are identifying and evaluating potential targets on an ongoing basis."
Ford has made a career and billions of dollars investing in and turning around troubled banks. For two decades beginning in 1975, Ford bought distressed banks, mainly taking advantage of the discounts presented as a result of the savings and loan crisis. Ford bought a total of 30 banks and five thrifts, and would sell them for a total of $605 million. However, in 2004 he bought his most profitable turnaround, purchasing First Nationwide Bank for $1.1 billion and bundling this asset with a few other small banks, which he then sold to Citigroup (NYSE: C ) for $5.3 billion.
Today, Ford is on the prowl again, but this time through his publicly traded investment company, Hilltop Holdings. During the financial crisis, banking regulators attempted to broker a deal that included Ford's private equity group as a potential buyer of Washington Mutual before JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM ) finally stepped in. While Ford was not involved in a deal for Washington Mutual, he led one of the first private equity firms in 2008 to attempt to gain the ability to buy failed banks from regulators through shelf registration.
Private equity groups have had a difficult time gaining full FDIC guarantees on loan losses for potential acquisitions. However, Ford has decided to invest in troubled banks that are not yet under FDIC control. In early 2010, Ford's group injected $500 million in troubled California lender Pacific Capital Bancorp (Nasdaq: PCBCD ) .
While Ford has yet to put any of Hilltop's cash to work on troubled banks, looking at the company's charter and knowing his history, it is hard to imagine that some of this cash is not earmarked for bank turnarounds.
Now about that pile of cash
Not only does the company have a ton of cash, it is also extremely cheap. In fact, its total cash balance of $643 million is larger than its entire market capitalization of $559 million. Hilltop does have $138.35 million in debt, so its net cash total of $505 million does not exceed its market cap, but good luck finding similar valuations in stock land.
The $505 million in net cash and a price/tangible book ratio of 0.9 is a pretty sizable margin of safety for any company, especially one run by someone who has been as successful as Gerald J. Ford. While his investments in 2011 bear watching, I believe investors can expect to see some cash being put to work in the financial sector. If his past success is any indicator, that could be a pretty profitable proposition for investors.