Capital One: Top Bank Stock Pick for 2012

Capital One Financial (NYSE:COF) is an earnings powerhouse, and the pressure on the shares leading into two major acquisitions provides a golden opportunity for investors to build long-term positions.

Capital One is a top pick among bank stocks for 2012, with continued strength in earnings and a historically low valuation to forward earnings estimates and book value.

The company expects to receive the Federal Reserve’s approval of its agreement to purchase ING Direct (USA) from ING Group (NYSE:ING) for roughly $9 billion, following a series of three public hearings held by the Fed and completed in October, where various consumer groups voiced their opposition to the deal.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has reopened its public comment period for Capital One’s pending deal to acquire the  U.S. credit card portfolio of HSBC Holdings (NYSE:HBC) for a premium of $2.6 billion.

Capital One still expects the ING deal to be completed late this year or early in 2012, providing needed liquidity for the HSBC card deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter.

Shares of Capital One are up about 4% year-to-date as of this writing, which is a strong return in a year that has seen the KBW Bank Index pull back almost 30%. And the shares trade at valuations similar to the “big four” U.S. bank holding companies — Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) — while Capital One has posted much stronger earnings results.

The better earnings for Capital One are no surprise, with credit cards providing 65% of third-quarter revenue and 70% of earnings from continued operations, after tax. Capital One’s operating return on average assets (ROA) was 1.72% in the third quarter, according to SNL Financial, and has ranged between 1.42% and 2.08% over the past five quarters.

The shares trade for just 7.5 times the consensus 2012 earnings estimate of $6.14 a share, among analysts polled by FactSet, and for 1.4 times tangible book value, according to SNL.

Let’s see how these numbers stack up against the big four U.S. bank holding companies:

Shares of Bank of America are trading around at $5.45, down about 60% year-to-date. The shares trade for 5.8 times the consensus 2012 earnings per share (EPS) estimate of 99 cents and for 0.4 times tangible book value. The ROA over the past five quarters has ranged from a negative 1.51% in the second quarter, when the company posted a net loss of $9.1 billion (springing from a $14.5 billion loss in its Consumer Real Estate division as it tried to put mortgage putback demands behind it) to a positive ROA of 1.08% in the third quarter.

JPMorgan Chase is trading around $32 as of this writing, down 23% year to date. The shares trade for 6.8 times the consensus 2012 EPS estimate of $4.88, and just under tangible book value. The ROA over the past five quarters has ranged between 0.76% and 1.06%.

Wells Fargo, closed at $26.29 Monday, down 14% year-to-date. The shares trade for 8.4 times the consensus 2012 EPS estimate of $3.20 and 1.5 times tangible book value. The ROA has ranged between 1.12% and 1.29% over the past five quarters.

Citigroup closed at $27.22 Monday, down 42% year-to-date. The shares trade for 6.6 times the consensus 2012 EPS estimate of $4.34, and for just over half their tangible book value. The ROA has ranged between 0.28% and 0.76% over the past five quarters.

You get what you pay for, and Capital One is putting up consistent earnings numbers. Looking back to the five full years before the credit crisis nearly wiped out the company’s earnings in 2008, Capital One’s ROA ranged from 1.74% to 3.05%, and the shares tended to trade in a range of 14 to 27 times trailing earnings.

With two large mergers pending — not to mention regulatory challenges to earnings for all large banks, the enhanced Basel III capital requirements and a third round of Federal Reserve stress tests looming — the most important factor in Capital One’s strong performance this year is its outstanding earnings performance.

Capital One’s renewed commitment to its core competency in credit card lending portends continued earnings improvement as the company integrates its two acquisitions over the next year.

And that should continue to propel the shares forward.

Philip W. van Doorn is a member of banking and finance team, commenting on industry and regulatory trends. 

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