Bank of America Stock: Buy, Sell, or Hold?

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Over the past 5 years, Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC  ) stock has been one of the more polarizing investments on the market. Some investors got burned during the financial crisis and hate the stock. Other investors sing its praises and sit on nearly 200% gains over the past 16 months.

But where does the stock stand today? Has all of the upside been pumped into the share price or is there still room to run on the upside? 

To gauge the value of Bank of America shares today, we asked seven Fools to weigh in with their opinion on the stock's attractiveness today.

Brendan Mathews: Bank of America is a buy today.

Its investors have faced an almost constant barrage of bad news over the past five years, and the bad news hasn't stopped -- the company is currently facing a litany of legal suits that could cost the bank billions. In this atmosphere of negativity, it's easy to lose track of the long-term picture, which is that Bank of America is a dominant franchise. It has over a trillion in deposits, on which it pays very little interest, that are a huge source of value.

Last year, it generated a return on equity of only 4%, but I don't think that's indicative of the bank's long-term potential for profitability. Over the long-term, Bank of America should be able to generate double-digit returns on equity, which would justify the company trading at book value or higher (a significant premium to today's multiple of 0.75x book).

John Maxfield: Two years ago, I agreed with Brendan and thought Bank of America was a buy. But today, I believe it's a hold. 

While it's my opinion that Bank of America's stock still has room to improve, as the lender continues to put its remaining legal liabilities behind it, so does every other bank stock in the country. And, while most of the others trade for significantly higher multiples, they're much more profitable and don't face the same magnitude of legal exposure. At last check, there's still more than $25 billion in outstanding claims against Bank of America from its four largest cases alone. 
 
Beyond this, regardless of which metric you look at (past credit losses, past and current efficiency ratios, etc.), the majority of its competitors run dramatically better operations and have done so for decades. In other words, if you're in the market for a bank stock, there are plenty of others that should catch your eye before Bank of America. For what it's worth, I personally prefer M&T BankNew York Community BancorpUS Bancorp, and/or Wells Fargo
 
Patrick Morris: The big numbers John mentions grab headlines, but a dive beneath the surface reveals why I believe Bank of America is a buy today.
 
It has commanding positions from its consumer and investment banking divisions, plus its wealth management group. Each posted returns above 20% last year on the capital allocated to them.

While its trading group, Global Markets struggled a touch in terms of profitability, combined, these four businesses delivered a return on average allocated capital -- Bank of America's measure for how profitable its businesses are -- of roughly 17.5%. Put simply, its core operations are phenomenally profitable.

Undeniably, its fifth unit, Consumer Real Estate Services, still deals with the mess it made as a result of the mortgage fiasco and corresponding crisis which causes massive headache. But when you consider Bank of America still trades at a remarkably low 1.2 price-to-tangible book value multiple, it means when the past finally passes, it's poised for great things.

Matthew Frankel: Patrick is right. Bank of America is a long-term buy.

It's true it has a giant pending legal settlement which will end up costing between $12 billion and $17 billion, and that $5 billion of "wiggle room" definitely creates some uncertainty. This could produce considerable volatility in the short-term, but as a business, Bank of America is pretty solid and improving nicely.

The consumer banking unit is cutting costs and growing deposits, and the brokerage business is doing extremely well. It's taken longer than anyone would have hoped to put the mortgage crisis in the past, but it will happen sooner rather than later.

David Hanson: I think Bank of America is buy in today's market, but it depends on how long you are willing to wait for the returns. I don't question that a combination of multiple expansion and book value growth can boost shares higher, but it may take longer than most are willing to wait. 

Bank of America's future profitability is heavily dependent on strong loan underwriting, and more importantly, a steeper yield curve to drive more interest income. I, like most, believe this will happen, but it may take several years for that to happen. Even if you think shares have 30% upside before they reach a "fair value," if it that takes 10 years, you're annualized returns will sit below 3%. To me, 3% per year is not an adequate return for a company (in its current form) that doesn't have a history of thriving through a credit downturn.

That said, I don't imagine it taking 10 years to achieve these returns. I think 2 to 4 years is more reasonable, which would fetch investors an annualized return of roughly 10% per year.

Kingkarn Amjareon: Bank of America is a central pillar of the U.S. financial system. Though the bank is one of the largest in the world and has attractive long-term earnings prospects, legal issues continue to haunt the bank.

Resurfacing litigation and settlement risks cloud Bank of America's true earnings power and lead investors to stay away from the bank despite a persistently low valuation.

With a 25% discount to book value, Bank of America offers a healthy margin of safety and remains an asymmetric bet on a solidifying recovery of the U.S. economy. The stock is a buy.

Wayne Duggan: We're starting to sound like a broken-record, but Bank of America is a buy.

The legal issues and recent "accounting errors" that resulted in a suspension of the proposed dividend and buyback plans have spooked shareholders, and the stock is being punished more than is due.

The $4 billion accounting error prompted Morgan Stanley analysts to lower their 2015 EPS estimate by only 1.3%, while the 2014 estimates remained unchanged. With that 1.2 price-to-tangible book value mutliple, Bank of America is trading at a significant discount to most of its peers, indicating that all the legal uncertainty seems to already be priced into the stock.

Wrap-up
Of the seven Fools we surveyed, five of them are very bullish on shares of Bank of America, one is moderately bullish, and one believes the stock is a "hold" at current prices.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 23, 2014, at 1:34 PM, pondee619 wrote:

    "John Maxfield: Two years ago, I agreed with Brendan and thought Bank of America was a buy. But today, I believe it's a hold."

    John; Please explain the "hold" call. If I don't own the shares, does "hold" mean that I shouldn't buy? If I shouldn't buy, why should I "hold"? Aren't there better issues ("buy" issues) in which to invest?

    If I do own the shares, why shoud I hold if they aren't worth buying? (See above.) Surely not for the dividend.

    If shares are not worth buying why should I hold?

    "... if you're in the market for a bank stock, there are plenty of others that should catch your eye before Bank of America. For what it's worth, I personally prefer M&T Bank, New York Community Bancorp, US Bancorp, and/or Wells Fargo. "

    Sounds an awful lot like sell and swap into any of your "preferred" banks, no?

    Please explain the "hold" call.

    Thanks

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