Have bank stocks already hit their 2018 peak?

Register now

The recent string of positive news for the banking industry, from lower corporate taxes to less regulation, is starting to feel like a distant memory.

After rising steadily following the election of President Trump, bank stocks surged once again at the beginning of 2018, pushed higher by the Republican tax cuts. In recent weeks, though, share prices have taken a dive, declining on a mix of investor worries, from looming fears of a trade war to broader concerns about bank profitability.

It’s a remarkable change — and, according to analysts, it reflects a growing concern among investors that there are few big financial policy battles left for the banking industry to win. The tax law, signed in December, slashed corporate rates from 21% to 35%. And the recent Dodd-Frank rollback, signed by the president in May, lifted major regulatory hurdles for the industry’s midsize banks.

“The things that are positive are somewhat in the rear-view mirror,” Marty Mosby, an analyst with Vining Sparks, said in discussing the recent stock slump.

Since January, the KBW Nasdaq Bank Index has declined by about 10%, to levels last seen at the beginning of December. The S&P 500 Financials Index, meanwhile, on Wednesday fell for a record 13th straight day.

As bank stocks come down from the high of recent policy victories, the industry’s underlying challenges are coming into view.

Take, for instance, the fact that consumer deposit costs are starting to increase in a meaningful way, leading to fears that higher rates on CDs and savings accounts will chip away at the benefit banks will receive from future interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve. Additionally, a slump in commercial lending, felt most strongly at the biggest banks, is showing no signs of letting up, and a flattening yield curve is raising concerns that a recession could be around the corner.

Also results of the first round of annual stress tests, released last week, failed to meet some analysts’ expectations.

“They certainly didn’t help in any way,” said Peter Winter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. He said that capital ratios reported by Citizens Financial Group, KeyCorp and SunTrust Banks were “a little lower” than he expected.

Of course, worries among bank investors about profitability are tough to square with the fact that the industry earned a record $56 billion in the first quarter, thanks largely to the tax cut.

“Earnings growth has been good,” Winters said, “but the feeling is a lot of the good news is starting to get baked into the valuations.”

Deposit costs are particularly worrisome, analysts said.

Two and a half years after the Federal Reserve began raising short-term rates, consumers are finally starting to demand higher rates on their savings accounts. That’s good news for consumers with excess cash, but it could ultimately put a drag on banks’ net interest margins.

“You are starting to see more of a shift into interest-bearing accounts,” said Winter. “You are also seeing a lot more promotional rates.”

Since December of 2017, the number of special offers on CDs — the rates that banks advertise on their windows and in newspapers — has increased noticeably in major cities across the country, according to Hovde Group. In Boston and Los Angeles, for instance, the total number of special promotions has increased by about 30%.

Meanwhile, the average rate on online savings accounts with $1,000 or more has increased by 38 basis points since the end of December, to 1.59%, according to Hovde.

When the Fed two weeks ago increased deposit rates by 25 basis points, to a range between 1.75% and 2%, it also signaled that two additional rate hikes are likely in 2018.

Whether or not banks will reap the full benefit of those rates by raising rates on loans depends in large part on their ability to keep deposit rates low.

Still, community banks have become more aggressive in recent months, increasing their rates on CDs to attract new funding, and there are signs that big banks may soon follow.

Winter noted that a number of big banks, including PNC Financial Services Group and Citizens Financial, have launched digital banks in the past few months to attract consumer deposits — and compete with other online competitors, such as Ally Financial and Goldman Sachs, which offer industry-leading deposit rates.

Citigroup, which launched a digital bank earlier this year, recently assured investors that it plans to keep its online deposit rates in check.

“We’re not looking as though we’re going to lead by raising rates on deposits,” Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach said at an investor conference earlier this month. “What we’re looking to do … is actually build relationships with existing credit card customers and people that know us already. We like to think that we know what they value, and there’s other things that they value beyond interest rates.”

Analysts cited the flattening yield curve as a major factor in the dip in bank stocks.

The yield curve, or the difference in the yields on 10-year and two-year Treasury notes, is often viewed as a gauge of investor sentiment, and as an indicator of whether the economy is slipping into a recession. That metric has recently narrowed to its smallest level since August 2007, or just before the financial crisis.

“If the curve inverts, that’s always something that people look at as a precursor of some negative situation,” said Scott Siefers, an analyst with Sandler O’Neill.

But bank analysts emphasized that it has little to do with the underlying performance of the industry.

“In reality it has a very modest, incremental effect on what happens to bank profitability,” said Mosby.

Mosby said bank investors are overlooking the fact that Treasury yields are still higher than the securities banks have in their investment portfolios. That leaves plenty of room for banks to increase the average yield on their portfolios — and increase their net interest margins — by buying securities at market rates, he said.

More broadly, Mosby said he expects stock prices to rally in the second half of the year, particularly if banks report stronger commercial loan growth during the second quarter.

The results of the Fed’s Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review, slated to be released Thursday afternoon, will likely be a “catalyst” a future rally, as the Fed could give banks the green light to increase payouts to shareholders, through a mix of dividends and buybacks, Mosby said.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.