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Inside the Market The 10-year bull market: Even Warren Buffett couldn’t match the returns of Canada’s Big Five banks

On Day 1 of the recovery from the worst bear market since the Great Depression, the big Canadian banks led the charge on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Royal Bank of Canada’s shares rose 14 per cent on March 10, 2009, as investors stormed back into the much-maligned financials sector. RBC’s fellow Big Five incumbents all posted double-digit gains of their own.

That day would prove to be the inflection point that separated the global financial crisis and devastating recession from one of the best bull markets in history.

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It would also usher in a decade of bank dominance in the Canadian stock market, displacing resources as the main driver of domestic equities.

In the 10 years since the market bottomed out, the Big Five together have contributed nearly half of the total returns generated by the S&P/TSX Composite Index. Just five stocks contributed 47 per cent of a decade’s worth of gains in an index that contains around 240 of the country’s largest companies.

“The banking sector hasn’t really had a bump in the road in 10 years,” said Tom Bradley, president of Steadyhand Investments. “They’ve just had these howling tailwinds.”

But it’s hard to imagine those tailwinds being quite as intense in the years ahead. The burdens from indebted households, a moderating economy and a slowing real estate boom mean the next decade in banking, and bank investing, is unlikely to have the same sheen as the gilded decade past.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Canada’s banking sector became the envy of the developed world. With relatively little exposure to the toxic securities that felled 25 U.S. banks in 2008 and destabilized the global financial system, Canada’s banks remained quite profitable. They didn’t even cut their dividends.

The World Economic Forum ranked the Canadian banking system as the world’s soundest, while U.S. President Barack Obama recognized Canada as “a pretty good manager of the financial system.”

While the banks themselves were spared from the worst of the carnage, their stocks fully participated in the crisis. Amid fears of contagion infecting the Canadian financial system, the diversified bank group declined in share price by 58 per cent from their 2007 peak to the market’s 2009 nadir.

“In a downturn, investors don’t look at earnings any more,” said Bill Dye, a banking analyst and portfolio manager at Leith Wheeler.

The combination of operational strength and cut-rate valuations set the Canadian bank stocks up for a monumental rebound. Citigroup Inc. provided the spark. After the company survived only by virtue of a bailout in the form of US$476.2-billion in cash and guarantees, Vikram Pandit, Citi’s beleaguered chief executive, told his employees on March 9, 2009 – the very day of the market bottom – that the bank turned a profit in the first two months of the year.

By the end of 2009, Canada’s group of big bank stocks had more than doubled. There was much more to come. Over 10 years, the banks have generated an average total return of more than 18 per cent a year. Not only did that performance trounce the broader Canadian stock market, it beat the S&P 500 index through the longest bull run in history. It even beat Warren Buffett – Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shares have returned 15.7 per cent a year over the same period.

Operating within a comfortable oligopoly, banks have undergone a decade of growth and become wildly profitable in the process. In fiscal 2018, the six largest banks generated $45.3-billion in earnings, amounting to more than $1,200 for each Canadian. They have thrived off of a generational housing boom, have come to dominate the wealth-management business in Canada and have used their domestic proceeds to expand well beyond Canada’s borders.

“They got through the crisis okay. They’ve grown their dividends. They put up these unbelievable numbers. What’s not to love?” Mr. Bradley said. In return, Canadian investors have developed a cult-like loyalty to the banks, which form the cornerstone of countless Canadian investment portfolios. “I get people that ask me, ‘Why wouldn’t I just own the five banks?’” Mr. Bradley said. That kind of radical concentration is one sign that sentiment toward the banks is overwhelmingly favourable, he added.

And yet, bank valuations never seem to get too out of hand. Despite their vaunted status among the investing masses, the big banks trade at an average forward price-to-earnings multiple of about 10.5. That’s considerably less than the valuation on the S&P/TSX Composite Index of about 15.

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“Their valuations just don’t seem to get higher over time,” said Christine Poole, CEO of Toronto-based GlobeInvest Capital Management. “Some bank CEOs argue that they are fairly defensive and stable businesses, and ask why they’re not getting a higher multiple.”

But there is a good reason such highly leveraged businesses trade at a significant discount to the market. As a result of high leverage ratios, “when things turn down, the banks tend to get hit very hard,” Leith Wheeler’s Mr. Dye said. “Retail investors sometimes forget that.”

The financial crisis served up a good reminder of that, not that anyone’s anticipating Canadian bank stocks to face such a severe test any time soon. But the forces that have elevated the mighty banks since the financial crisis are undoubtedly weakening. With household debt near record levels, the average Canadian has little room left to borrow.

“Over the next few years, loan losses are likely to be higher than they are today, even if there isn’t a recession,” Mr. Dye said. “And earnings growth is almost assuredly going to be lower.”

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