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Bank Outperformance Ends, But Fear Not

Australia | Apr 13 2021

This story features AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND BANKING GROUP LIMITED, and other companies. For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: ANZ

Banks no longer offer deep value, but despite headwinds brokers expect the sector to benefit from a broader economic recovery

-Earnings and dividends upgrades through 2021
-Regionals favoured over majors
-Sector to trade higher on credit growth & capital management
-Dividend revisions significantly outpacing earnings revisions

By Mark Story

Banks outperformed the broader market by around 3.5% in March, bringing the year to date outperformance to 12%. Over the past six months, ANZ Bank ((ANZ)), up 58%, has been the clear outperformer, followed by National Australia Bank ((NAB)) and Westpac ((WBC)) both up around 43%.

Reflecting lower leverage to the recovery and the benefit of starting from a stronger position, without the need to raise equity during covid, Commonwealth Bank ((CBA)) has by comparison lagged (up 30%).

While still based on depressed earnings estimates, price/earnings ratios (PE) have risen from 11x to 16x across the big four banks. Relative to the market, Wilsons notes the sector trades at 0.88x, just above the long-term average of 0.85x. 

Based on the prospect of further earnings and dividends upgrades through 2021 and capital management in the December quarter, Wilsons believes this gap is likely to close.

Hard to be overly bullish

But despite this marking the seventh month in a row in which banks have over-performed, stretched valuations and longer-term headwinds have made it difficult for analysts to be overly bullish on the sector.

While tighter lending standards could add to the sector’s future headwinds, commentary from the banking regulator APRA suggests there needs to be clear evidence of a deterioration in lending standards before macro-prudential restrictions would be required. But assuming house price growth continues at the current pace, JPMorgan expects macro restrictions to be reintroduced later this year.

While Wilsons believes Australian banks no longer provided the deep value on offer in September quarter 2020, the broker continues to see upside across the industry as the economy recovers, lending growth improves and strategic initiatives take hold.

Given the prospect of further upward moves in long bond yields through 2021 and acceleration in the domestic recovery cycle, Wilsons also expects market conditions to continue to remain reasonably favourable for banks.

While valuations have risen dramatically from 0.9x book value in the September quarter 2020, the broker notes share prices are still 15% below levels implied by looking at the long-term measures of price to book ratios. On the same basis, share prices are -30% below 2015 levels before the multi-year bank de-rating process ended in mid-2020.

However, Macquarie believes that a positive balance sheet and margin trends, coupled with likely upside risk to earnings from lower impairment charges, provide a favourable earnings backdrop. But given these considerations are well understood, and reflected in share prices, Macquarie retains a Neutral sector view. The broker favours the regional banks over the majors, with its preferred exposures being Bendigo & Adelaide Bank ((BEN)) in regionals and ANZ among the majors.

Key areas of focus

Despite the strong rebound in banks, Credit Suisse believes the sector can trade higher in the near term due to regulatory environment – versus 12 months ago – credit growth (the fuse for revenue growth) and capital management.

While Wilsons expects the upcoming bank results season (May) to be well received by the market, the broker expects it to be shaped by four areas of focus: Bad debt provision reversals, higher dividends, pathways to capital management – which could potentially total around $20bn in size across the sector over FY22 – and new strategic initiatives.

While consensus provisions for bank sector bad debts have halved since December 2020 from around $8bn to $4bn – off the back of stronger domestic economic performance – Wilsons thinks provision levels still look excessive given the economic performance of Australia.

On the dividend front, the good news for investors, adds Wilsons, is that dividend revisions are significantly outpacing earnings revisions. In terms of first half 2021 dividend per share (DPS) estimates, Wilsons notes the market is currently looking for 80% growth on second half 2020.

When it comes to surplus cash, Wilsons suspects the banks will show investors a pathway to capital returns in May, but will not act until the November FY21 results.

Wilsons Australian Equity Focus List remains overweight on the banks with 300bp active position across ANZ, NAB, and Westpac. The broker has zero exposure to CBA primarily on relative value grounds and expectations around the value/growth rotation theme, which likely has at least another six months to run.

Credit growth & risked based lending

Housing credit growth improved in February to around 5%, but Macquarie notes the upside to balance sheet growth fell short of implied December 2020 commitments data.

Macquarie believes higher repayments and lower redraws limit the upside to credit growth. But the broker believes front-book (new loans) settled rates appear to have stabilised, the ongoing mix-shift towards lower-margin fixed business and front-to-back book (exisiting loans) gap is putting pressure on lending margins.

As previously flagged earlier this year, Macquarie also expects increased focus on risk-based pricing to add to the existing front-to-back book pricing gap. The Lendi Mortgage Pricing Index shows front book rates continuing to decline and now stand at around 2.35%, which is -90bps lower than in first half 2018.

Morgan Stanley notes that while ANZ's growth rate slowed again to just 1.0% from 2.4% in January, CBA was a touch stronger at around 5.0% versus 4.2%. Meantime, while NAB picked up to 2.4% from 1.3%, Westpac improved to 4.2% from 2.4%.

One of the reasons Morgan Stanley is Overweight on Westpac is the broker’s expectation franchise performance and mortgage growth will improve, especially given greater focus from management and a better outlook for the Australian housing market. Westpac’s first half 2021 annualised housing loan growth is now tracking at around 1.6%, comfortably above Morgan Stanley’s forecast of 0%.

By comparison ANZ's annualised housing loan growth has been slowing for several months. It was greater than 10% in September and October, but mid-single digits in November and December. In the month of February it fell further to just 1.0%.

As a result of these trends, Morgan Stanley notes that ANZ's first half 2021 annualised housing loan growth is now tracking at around 3%, which suggests meaningful downside risk to the broker’s first half 2021 forecast of around 8%.

Cashbacks

Macquarie also notes banks are continuing to use cashbacks to restore their market share – including Westpac ((WBC)), National Australia Bank ((NAB)), and Bank of Queensland ((BOQ)) – partly offsetting the benefits of lower funding costs. In aggregate, Macquarie estimates the majors benefiting from lower funding costs of between 16-22bps, with between 50-60% likely to be captured in FY21.

Macquarie believes the key change in housing credit growth trends in recent months is the convergence in performance across the majors and the rise of the regionals. The broker notes that CBA retained its top spot among the majors in February as it grew by around 1.2x ahead of the system, while ANZ growth declined again and is now below system at (around 0.5x).

Macquarie suspects the removal of its cashback offers and aggressive pricing have impacted ANZ's growth. NAB and Westpac also improved (with cashback and pricing support) and grew at around 0.4x and circa 0.7x system, respectively. Macquarie regards this as a significant turnaround for Westpac, albeit at the cost of margin headwinds.

Meantime, the regionals continued to take share with Bendigo & Adelaide and Bank of Queensland ((BOQ)) growing at around 2.2x and 1.9x, respectively, which when coupled with favourable deposit tailwinds, the broker believes bodes well for their earnings in FY21.

Deposit surge ends

In the ten months to December, the majors added an average of $9bn per month to their household deposit balances. However, with deposit growth having slowed materially (to less than $1bn in February) Morgan Stanley believes the surge in deposits has ended as the impact of tax refunds, tax rate cuts, early superannuation withdrawals, lockdowns and loan repayment deferrals fade.

Over the month both ANZ and CBA saw their total deferrals decrease by 54% and 76% respectively. While NAB had the lowest balance of deferrals (0.2% of total loans) out of the major banks, Westpac had the highest (0.9% of total loans).

An environment of improving loan growth and slowing deposit growth is typically a headwind for margins. But the broker believes high levels of liquidity, the ongoing deposit mix-shift and the low cost of wholesale funding support the near-term outlook.

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CHARTS

ANZ BEN BOQ CBA NAB WBC

For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: BEN - BENDIGO & ADELAIDE BANK LIMITED

For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: BOQ - BANK OF QUEENSLAND LIMITED

For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: CBA - COMMONWEALTH BANK OF AUSTRALIA

For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: NAB - NATIONAL AUSTRALIA BANK LIMITED

For more info SHARE ANALYSIS: WBC - WESTPAC BANKING CORPORATION