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Investing in Bank Stocks

Updated: April 5, 2021, 2:35 p.m.

Banks can seem like rather complicated businesses, and in many ways they are. However, the basic ideas behind the banking industry and how these businesses make their money are easy to understand. With that in mind, here's an overview of the different types of banks, some important metrics investors should know, and three great beginner-friendly bank stocks to keep on your radar.

The 3 categories of banking businesses

  • Commercial banks: These are banks that provide services to consumers and businesses, such as checking and savings accounts, auto loans, mortgages, certificates of deposit, and more. The primary way a commercial bank makes its money is by borrowing money at a relatively low interest rate and lending it to customers at a higher rate. While commercial banks make the bulk of their money from interest income, many also collect substantial fee revenue for things like loan origination fees, ATM surcharges, and account maintenance fees. It's important for investors to note that commercial banking is a cyclical business-- when recessions (and pandemics) hit, unemployment rises and consumers and businesses often have trouble paying their bills.
  • Investment banks: These banks provide investment services for institutional clients and high-net-worth individuals. Investment banks are the companies that help other companies go public through IPOs, issue debt securities, and advise on mergers and acquisitions, and they earn fees for all these things. Investment banks typically also make money from trading in equities, fixed-income securities, currencies, and commodities. They also typically have wealth management businesses and often have substantial investment portfolios of their own. Unlike commercial banking, investment banking tends to hold up quite well during recessions. In fact, when markets get volatile, investment banking often does better.
  • Universal banks: A universal bank is one that has both commercial and investment banking operations. Most large U.S. banks are universal banks. While commercial banks get the bulk of their profits from interest income and investment banks primarily rely on fee income, universal banks enjoy a nice combination of the two.

Obviously, these are simplified definitions. Banks have many other ways to generate revenue. For example, many banks offer safe-deposit boxes for lease to their customers, and some make money through partnerships with third-party companies. However, at their core, these are the main ways that banks make their money.

3 top bank stocks to watch in 2021

Hundreds of banks trade on the major U.S. exchanges, and they come in various sizes, geographic locations, and focuses. While there are some excellent choices in the investable universe, here are three beginner-friendly bank stocks that could deliver excellent returns for years to come.

  1. Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) has been one of the most impressive turnaround stories in the post-financial-crisis era, even as falling interest rates put pressure on its profitability. In 2019 the bank grew its loan portfolio by more than 6%, well ahead of peers, and the company has made major improvements in efficiency as it has built out its online and mobile technology.
  2. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) is hands down the most profitable of the big universal banks, and it's also the largest bank by market capitalization in the United States. The bank has operations in just about every area of both commercial and investment banking, and has done a particularly great job of growing its credit card and auto loan businesses in recent years.
  3. U.S. Bancorp (NYSE:USB) is primarily a commercial bank, with income from loans and other consumer banking products making up virtually all of its revenue. Not only is U.S. Bancorp focused on consumer banking, it consistently produces some of the most impressive profitability and efficiency metrics in the sector and has been an excellent dividend stock for investors.

Important metrics for bank stock investors

If you're looking to invest in individual bank stocks, here are a few metrics that you might want to add to your toolkit:

  • Price-to-book (P/B) value: An excellent valuation metric to use with bank stocks, the price-to-book, or P/B, ratio shows how much a bank is trading for relative to the net value of its assets. It can be used in combination with the profitability metrics discussed next to give an overall picture of how cheap or expensive a bank stock is.
  • Return on equity (ROE): The first of two common profitability metrics used with bank stocks, return on equity is a bank’s profits expressed as a percentage of its shareholders’ equity. Higher is better; 10% or above is generally considered sufficient.
  • Return on assets (ROA): This is a bank’s profit as a percentage of the assets on its balance sheet. For example, if a bank made a $1 billion profit in 2020 and had $100 billion in assets, itsreturn on assets would be 1%. Investors generally want to see an ROA of 1% or higher.
  • Efficiency ratio: A bank’s efficiency ratio is a percentage that tells investors how much the bank spent to generate its revenue. For example, a 60% efficiency ratio means that a bank spent $60 for every $100 in revenue it generated. You get the efficiency ratio by dividing noninterest expenses (operating costs) by net revenue, and lower is better.

The COVID-19 pandemic and bank stocks

Banks have been one of the worst-performing parts of the stock market since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so let’s quickly explore why they’ve underperformed and how the pandemic has affected -- and how it could continue to affect -- their businesses.

The main reason banks have done so poorly is that they could face a wave of loan defaults if elevated unemployment persists. Banks have set aside billions already this year to cover expected loan losses, but if the pandemic worsens or government support dries up, it might not be enough. In addition, interest rates have fallen to record lows as a result of the pandemic, which is bad news for banks. This is a secondary problem to the possibility of defaults, but still important to know.

It’s also worth mentioning that some parts of investment banking -- specifically trading and underwriting -- tend to do better in turbulent times. Banks like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) that have large investment banking operations could be helped by this, while banks that largely focus on commercial banking like Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) could be at a temporary disadvantage.

Related topics

Warren Buffett’s favorite sector

Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) CEO Warren Buffett is known as one of the best stock investors of all time, and for good reason. Over his past 55 years at the helm of the company, Buffett has delivered annualized returns more than double those of the S&P 500, and the investments he’s chosen for Berkshire’s massive stock portfolio over the years are a good reason why.

If you take a glance at Berkshire’s stock portfolio, you’ll notice one big trend -- Buffett owns quite a few bank stocks. Berkshire owns stakes worth $1 billion or more in five different bank stocks, including a very large stake in Bank of America.

The Foolish bottom line on bank stocks

While it’s not necessarily a smart idea to buy any particular stock just because a billionaire owns it (even Warren Buffett), there does appear to be some value in the banking industry in 2021. So if you don’t have much exposure in your portfolio, one or more of the rock-solid banks discussed here could be a good fit for you.

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