Talk is cheap. And in the investing world, often ideas are, too.
When an investor talks about an "idea," it's often a nod to an investment with potential, but one that he or she hasn't finished vetting. Perhaps it'll be a winner, but maybe further research will cause the investor to toss that idea in the junk pile.
But what happens when you ask investors to offer up their "best ideas" -- that is, the ideas they're most confident in and have done the most research on? Well, you're about to find out, because I reached out to three of the top banking and financials analysts writing for Fool.com and asked them to give me their "best ideas" for right now.
Jordan Wathen: The Chubb Corporation (NYSE:CB) is my favorite long-term pick in the insurance industry. From 2004 to 2013, premium revenue grew only 3%, but Chubb's earnings more than doubled from $4.08 to $9.04 per share.
Sure, 2013 was a stellar year for insurance as losses were muted. A single year, however, ignores the impressive work of CEO John Finnegan to make Chubb one of the most profitable companies in its industry.
Finnegan joined Chubb in 2002, and since then, he's steered the company toward the most profitable policies -- specialty and personal insurance.
Specialty and personal insurance require scale and expertise, which is reflected in higher prices and profitability. Chubb's specialty line had a combined ratio of 94.3% in 2013; its personal lines had a combined ratio of 79.8%.
But most importantly, Finnegan understands the importance of smart capital allocation, carefully balancing policy growth with other opportunities like share repurchases. In the last ten years, Chubb's outstanding share count plummeted from 380 million shares to 248 million at the end of 2013, a full 35% reduction in share count.
During the same 10-year period from 2004 to 2013, returns on equity have averaged 14.9%, topping 10% in all but one year (2012), when insurance losses sent returns on equity to a still-impressive 9.8%.
Chubb isn't a stock that will double or triple overnight. Rather, at 1.4 times book value and 11.5 times 2014 earnings guidance, it's a Foolish compounding machine led by smart underwriters and great capital allocators. With the broader market reaching for new highs, Chubb offers compelling long-run returns in a sea of fairly priced stocks.
Patrick Morris: Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) has had a mighty impressive run since the end of 2011, and many have been left to wonder whether there's any value still to be had in this big bank. I'm here to say there is.
With its legal settlements, massive losses, and the perils of the financial crisis seemingly behind it, Bank of America had an impressive 2013, as its net income available to shareholders rose from $2.8 billion in 2012 to $10.1 billion in 2013. This improvement was realized across its business lines, as each business delivered higher income -- excluding provision for credit losses -- over the year.
Also consider that Bank of America's total net income of $11.4 billion in 2013 almost equaled the $13.6 billion it earned in the five years combined from 2008 to 2012. But the best could be ahead of it.
Bank of America still trails its peers in almost every profitability metric. While many may say this is a reason to not invest, I would suggest the opposite, as there is still room for improvement.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that if it improved its efficiency ratio from 77% (where it stood in 2013) to just 70%, it would mean $7 billion more in net income. In addition, CEO Brian Moynihan has said that over the next three years the bank is looking to double its return on assets and tangible equity to 1% and 14%, respectively, which would cause its returns to resemble peers such as US Bancorp (NYSE:USB) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC).
When you consider all of this, along with the fact that Bank of America carries a drastically lower valuation multiple versus US Bancorp and Wells Fargo, there is no denying Bank of America could still have a lot of growth ahead of it.
John Maxfield: My best idea is informed by somewhat of an oxymoron. That is, I'm extremely bullish on the financial sector, but less so with respect to a specific stock.
As I see it, banks in particular are poised to make considerably more money in the years ahead. The principal driver will be interest rates, which run in roughly decade-long cycles.
Despite being at the bottom of an epic cycle right now, lenders such as Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are nevertheless making money hand over foot. With that in mind, just image what their bottom lines will look like once the economy truly picks up and interest rate spreads widen.
My reservation nevertheless comes from the fact that any individual bank has its own unique set of challenges. This applies to even the best of the best, which, in my opinion, consists of New York Community Bancorp, M&T Bank, US Bancorp, and Wells Fargo. These are exceptional companies, run by exceptional management teams, and they have provided exceptional shareholder returns over decades.
How can these issues be reconciled? The answer is simple: Buy an index fund that tracks the sector.
The one that comes to mind most readily is the Financial Select Sector SPDR (NYSEMKT:XLF), which mirrors the overall S&P Financial Select Sector Index. An added bonus is that, beyond the nation's biggest banks, this fund offers exposure to insurance companies like MetLife and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway as well as less traditional banking operations including Goldman Sachs, State Street, and American Express.