At the start of 2019, when we relaunched our best exchange-traded funds feature, I thought the market was getting frothy and chose to get defensive with the Financial Sector Spider ETF (NYSEARCA:XLF).
So far, that’s up 15%. Pretty fly for an old guy. But folks who were more aggressive have done better. The editor of this section, Robert Waldo, has more than doubled me up with his choice, the Pacer Benchmark Data & Infrastructure Real Estate ETF (NYSEARCA:SRVR). SRVR has big holdings in technology landlords like American Tower (NYSE:AMT), which owns most of those big cell towers you love, and Equinix (NASDAQ:EQIX), a data center REIT that connects the clouds.
Can the big banks come back?
Look for Consolidation
Hope for a comeback lies in consolidation. The merger of BB&T (NYSE:BBT) and SunTrust (NYSE:STI) to create something called Truist is making investors money. It’s a big win for Charlotte, which will be the new bank’s headquarters, and a loss for my hometown of Atlanta, where SunTrust is based.
The Prosperity Bancshares (NYSE:PB) acquisition of LegacyTexas Financial Group (NASDAQ:LTXB) in Dallas gave that state its first big locally owned bank in decades. By such standards it’s still a minnow. Total assets will be about $30 billion (SunTrust alone is worth seven times more) but if this is the start of a trend, then XLF investors should benefit. That’s because takeovers fuel speculation about more takeovers, leading speculators to feed on potential targets and bankers to start whispering sweet nothings of profit in other bankers’ ears.
Banks Are Payment Processors
In general, however, banks remain subject to the same computerization trend facing other service-based businesses like insurance and real estate. Don’t let your kid think he can grow up to sit behind a desk with pillars at either side and a swinging gate in front of him. That’s a game for lawyers.
I have only been in banks a few times in the last year … once to visit my safety deposit box and another time to use a notary. (You probably thought I was going to say bathroom.) There was a time when I regularly visited my broker’s office to deposit checks into my market account, but there’s an app for that now.
Willie Sutton, the bank robber who supposedly said banks “are where the money is,” would today be a geeky hacker, because that’s where the money is in banking today. It’s in programming.
Why sit in front of a banker when you can just borrow through Square (NYSE:SQ) Capital — they have all your financial figures anyhow. On the other hand, the biggest banks are also the biggest payment processors. They’re not going to let that business go without a fight.
Expect more deals.
Bottom Line on the XLF ETF
The bottom line is that as money continues to become magnetic ink, banks will remain under pressure to consolidate and run off to the dog track with the depositors’ money. The likelihood of more scandals like that of Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB), once seen as a Donald Trump-era darling, is only going to grow.
It all comes down to a new sobering reality. Banks are about to become the new stock market casino. But casinos make good money. And if your kid grew up as a geeky programmer type, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) is hiring.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new environmental story, Bridget O’Flynn and the Bear , available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in JPM.