European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

This time, it may be more than just another false dawn for European bank stocks.

The worst performers among Europe’s equity markets in the past decade have had occasional hot streaks, but with this year’s re-emergence of inflation promising an end to an era of near-zero interest rates, the sector is among the biggest gainers in 2021.

The Stoxx 600 Banks Index is up 76% since a low in September, its steepest advance since the recovery from the financial crisis. Societe Generale SA, Banco Santander SA and Natwest Group Plc are among 11 lenders whose shares have more than doubled. And yet even after the surge, the gauge is still below pre-pandemic levels and the stocks remain relatively cheap.

Bond yields are rising, making it more profitable for banks to lend, and trading desks are profiting from buoyant financial markets that have been underpinned by the economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Obviously, financials clearly work in that kind of environment,” said Alan Custis, head of U.K. equities at Lazard Asset Management LLC. “Financials still look very cheap relative to their pre-Covid levels and on an absolute valuation standpoint, particularly here in the U.K.”

European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

Perhaps the most positive indicator for bank stocks right now is inflation, both real and anticipated, which is pushing up long-term interest rates and boosting the margin that banks can make from lending. On Thursday, a report showed that prices paid by U.S. consumers rose in May by more than expected and the European Central Bank increased its inflation forecast.

European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

Earnings also are supporting the rally, with bank profits for the first three months of the year beating expectations by 40%, data compiled by Bloomberg shows. “The first-quarter earnings season was the most constructive in a very long time,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts led by Jernej Omahen wrote in a note last week.

Banks have stopped increasing the amount they’re setting aside for bad loans, and some lenders even took the step of releasing some of those reserves. Thriving investment banking businesses also have proved longer lasting than first anticipated, and lenders with asset management divisions are benefiting from recovering markets and record inflows.

European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

That raises the prospect of juicier dividend payouts and share buybacks. A de facto ban on those shareholder returns, imposed by the ECB, is set to be lifted on Sept. 30. “After the elimination of the restrictions, the banks would return to their shareholder remuneration policies, offering dividend yields that are estimated to be around 5-6%,” said Cristina Benito, head of equities for discretionary portfolios at Mapfre AM.

Mergers and acquisitions, or at least speculation about them, may help to underpin bank stocks, too. Europe’s fragmented banking landscape is often named as one reason for the sector’s low profitability in contrast to the U.S., where banks have been thriving over the past decade. Cross-border deals are still difficult but some domestic consolidation is taking shape in Southern Europe.

European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

Italy’s Intesa Sanpaolo SpA last year managed to pull off Europe’s biggest banking acquisition in a decade by buying domestic rival UBI Banca SpA, while Spain’s CaixaBank SA and Bankia SA also merged. Banco de Sabadell SA is Europe’s best-performing lender this year, up 81%, and some investors are betting the company will make another attempt to combine with Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA after failed talks in 2020.

“The tide is already high for the banking sector and all banks are up there, so now it’s a matter of being selective,” said David Tomas, a portfolio manager at Andbank Wealth Management in Madrid. “Some banks will benefit from M&A.”

European Bank Stocks Lead Rally After a Decade of Disappointment

Past bank-stock rallies have faltered because of bad loans, trading blowups and low profitability, and there are new worries this time around, such as a potential increase in defaults when government support packages run out and the threat posed by competition from fintechs. Optimists are betting they pose no obstacle to a continued rally.

“The banking sector now offers, for the first time in a long time, favorable circumstances for its shareholders,” said Enrique Marazuela, chief investment officer at BBVA Private Banking.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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