For Lori Appelbaum, choosing a winning stock takes footwork in addition to an analytical eye.
Like other analysts, Ms. Appelbaum visits chief executives at their company headquarters. But she also travels to branches and tours the communities where the banks do business.
"I want to know how the bank is perceived," said Ms. Appelbaum, who also subscribes to on-line editions of local newspapers.
"The more information you have, the better you are able to dissect what's going on. It's almost better to know the answers before you ask the questions."
The legwork apparently pays off. The fast-rising member of Goldman, Sachs & Co.'s team of banking analysts was the standout in American Banker's annual Sharpshooter survey. She was the most accurate regional banking analyst over all, and her earnings projections turned out to be the most accurate among the 19 analysts in her category for Comerica Inc. and Fifth Third Bancorp.
She ranked second in predicting earnings for Firstar Corp., Hibernia Corp., Wachovia Corp., and Zions Bancorp.
Ms. Appelbaum says that being a bank stock analyst comes naturally. She has been watching the stock market since she was a child and put together her first investment portfolio as a teenager.
"My father was always an investor. We'd talk about ideas in the market," she says.
Ms. Appelbaum has been around banks for nearly as long as she's been around the stock market. As a teenager she was a teller with a unit of Bank One Corp. After attending the Wharton School for Business, Ms. Appelbaum took a job as a loan officer with Chemical Banking Corp.
She says analysis of the bank's clients appealed to her. At the urging of colleagues, in 1993 she landed a job as a regional banking analyst at Sanford Bernstein & Co. "I knew I was in my element," she said.
In 1995, Ms. Appelbaum moved to Goldman Sachs, where she continues to follow about a dozen banking companies.
"They're great companies; many are focused on achieving strong growth by offering a wide array of products and services," she says.
Ms. Appelbaum keeps close tabs on her companies, calling management "at least once a week," she says. "You don't miss much with any individual company if you talk to them a lot."
"She is very astute," said Patricia Voltz, investor relations chief for Hibernia. "She asks the right questions and knows what the hot topics are.
"I've been in this position for two years," Ms. Voltz added, "and we've never had a difference of opinion."
Ms. Appelbaum, whose eyes continually wander to her computer terminal during an interview, said she relaxes by skiing and sailing, but her mind is never too far from her bank stocks. "There's always something going," she says. "It's hard to distance yourself."
The job is "very intellectually challenging," Ms. Appelbaum said. "The industry and its outlook are constantly changing."
In analyzing a company, Ms. Appelbaum looks at all factors driving revenue growth.
"You need to have the culture that permits selling, then monitor it and incent people for doing it."
Right now her top picks include Wells Fargo & Co., which she said "has a great growth focus," and SunTrust Banks, which she calls "a consistently strong revenue generator."
Also high on her list is U.S. Bancorp, which "has opportunity for more revenue growth" now that the merger with First Bank Systems Inc. is complete.
Ms. Appelbaum sees herself as a banking analyst for the long term. "I don't know what else I would do," she says. "This perfectly suits my temperament and interests."