With COVID-19 breaking out in new regions of the U.S. and around the world, you might not think it's the best time to invest in financial stocks. The Federal Reserve just made a pre-emptive 50 basis-point cut to the federal funds rate, which will put a crimp in banks' net interest margins this year. And if the coronavirus leads to something really bad, like a prolonged recession, banks and other financial firms will take another hit.
Still, even the highest-quality financial stocks have quite rapidly gone on sale over the past two weeks. Though the following companies have fallen along with the sector, they depend less on interest rates than others. Moreover, each company has a deep economic moat that should ensure stability in rough times and outsize returns over the long term.
On Monday, card processing giant Visa (NYSE:V) released an SEC filing saying it was adjusting its first-quarter growth outlook down by about 2.5 to 3.5 percentage points. The payments giant cited especially weak travel and cross-border spending, though thus far, e-commerce and non-Asian markets hadn't been affected outside of that. Visa had previously projected revenue growth in the "low double digits" for the upcoming fiscal year, so it appears the new guidance will still put its growth just under 10% for the current quarter.
Visa owns the world's largest card rail network, which performs authorization, clearance, and settlement of transactions between card issuers and merchant banks. Visa takes a small cut of every transaction that flows over its network, so isn't immune from macroeconomic downturns; however, it is a much less risky business model than banks, which have to make good loans and earn a net interest margin. Though Visa's growth might be curtailed this quarter or even this year, it's still a long-term winner in the war on cash. That's why even in a sharp slowdown, the company is still growing almost 10%.
Visa is also a highly profitable business and a consistent repurchaser of its own stock, buying back $2.4 billion in 2019. With the stock down roughly 14% from its all-time highs, those repurchases will be able to retire even more shares this year. Meanwhile, Visa's wide-moat business is well-positioned for the future of electronic payments, once we're past the coronavirus slowdown.
Bank stocks got walloped on Tuesday, when the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by 50 basis points. If the economy comes through the coronavirus scare relatively unscathed, the banks are huge bargains right now. However, if the downturn persists and interest rates remain this low, things could get a bit dicey. For bargains in the banking sector, it's probably best to look at best-of-breed defensive names. One of those is JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM).
Though JPMorgan does have some interest rate exposure, its sales and trading division could benefit from this quarter's volatility, and its No. 1-ranked investment bank could benefit from increased merger activity if we get prolonged low interest rates.
CEO Jamie Dimon has long said that JPMorgan didn't need a bailout during the global financial crisis of 2008. He also wrote last year that a Lehman Bros.-like failure would be extremely unlikely today, given the capital ratios that the country's biggest banks maintain. JPMorgan ended 2019 with a very high 12.4% common equity tier 1 capital ratio, giving it a fortress-like balance sheet to weather any downturn.
Though JPMorgan's earnings might come in below expectations in 2020, it should still return lots of cash to shareholders through buybacks and dividends, making the stock both cheap today and safe for the long run.
Finally, perhaps the most recession-proof financial titan of them all is Warren Buffett's conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B). Berkshire is not quite as exposed to interest rate risk as other financial companies since its main business is insurance, not banking. Nevertheless, Buffett has invested in many leading U.S. bank stocks, so there is some risk in that respect. However, most of these banks are large money-center banks such as JPMorgan, which are relatively safe for the long term.
More important, Berkshire has a whopping $125 billion of cash sitting on its insurance balance sheet today, ready to deploy. According to a recent filing, Buffett already added to his Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) stake after airline stocks nosedived on recent coronavirus news. If a broader sell-off occurs, Berkshire would be in prime position to scoop up more bargains, either in the stock market or with whole acquisitions.
Berkshire is run very conservatively, as both Buffett and partner Charlie Munger run the conglomerate as if it's their shareholders' only asset. While they have taken some criticism for sitting on cash during a lot of this bull market, that same conservatism should give investors confidence in Berkshire's stock today, down about 10% from recent highs.