Canadian bank stocks have rebounded over the past six weeks after touching their lowest valuations since the financial crisis. But an enduring recovery rests on profit and revenue growth over the year ahead, and the outlook here is murky at best.
For sure, the stocks are enjoying some momentum right now. The Big Six have risen 11.4 per cent since Dec. 24, when the stocks traded at just 9.2-times estimated earnings, the lowest price-to-earnings ratio in nearly a decade.
But in the run-up to the start of the banks’ fiscal first-quarter reporting season on Feb. 26, some observers see potential hurdles, given a slowing Canadian economy and weak lending growth.
“We anticipate the economy will pick up again in 2020 – but during the slower economic period in 2019, risks will be elevated,” Darko Mihelic, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, said in a note to clients.
He cut his target prices (where he sees Canadian bank stocks trading within 12 months) by an average of 7.7 per cent on Friday, suggesting dimming enthusiasm. His target on Bank of Montreal fell to $112 from $126 previously, marking the biggest revision. His target on Toronto-Dominion Bank fell to $83 from $92.
Okay, the new targets imply average gains of about 17 per cent over the year ahead, which sounds good. But the revisions also suggest that bank stocks may be cheap for a good reason, which other analysts have also pointed out.
Gabriel Dechaine, an analyst at National Bank Financial, noted last month that low valuations imply serious concerns about the Canadian housing market. Of particular note: Residential mortgage growth – just 3 per cent in November, year-over-year – has descended to its lowest level in more than 20 years.
“Low valuations alone won’t attract investors to the sector. Indeed, we believe early 2019 housing issues could weigh on re-rating potential at least until we see stabilization in housing prices/mortgage volumes etc.,” Mr. Dechaine said in his mid-January note.
Mr. Mihelic put some numbers to his concerns. He reduced his 2019 and 2020 profit outlook for five of the Big Six banks (since he works for Royal Bank of Canada, RBC falls outside his coverage), by an average of 1.6 per cent.
He also cut his valuation targets for four banks (excluding National Bank of Canada, which is being buoyed by a strong Quebec economy, where it generates 58 per cent of its revenue), each by 0.5-times earnings. For example, he now expects TD will trade at 11.5-times earnings, down from a prior valuation target of 12-times earnings. His target for BMO falls to 11-times earnings, down from 11.5.
“We are lowering our target multiples for a number of reasons including a softer economic outlook and rising recessionary risks/late cycle concerns which could potentially lead to higher provisions for credit losses (PCLs) under IFRS 9,” Mr. Mihelic said, referring to new financial reporting standards.
Some of his numbers are sobering. He expects that personal and commercial loan growth will subside to just 2.9 per cent in 2019, down from 4.1 per cent in 2018 and 5 per cent in 2017.
Although business loan growth this year should be much stronger, at 6.9 per cent, that would mark a substantial slowdown from 11.3-per-cent growth last year.
Investors can always hope that the big banks will be able to squeeze more profit out of their revenues by cutting costs and introducing new technology. But even here, Mr. Mihelic is anticipating far more modest gains ahead. He expects that the banks’ efficiency ratios, which compare expenses with profit (lower is better), will dip only slightly in 2019, to 54.6 per cent from 54.8 per cent in 2018.
The takeaway here? Low valuations aren’t a compelling reason to bet big on banks right now, unless you can handle some bumps. “While the medium-term outlook is shrouded by uncertainty, we still like bank stocks over the longer-term,” Mr. Mihelic said.