Heres the long and the short of my little story today: stock selection has been tough in 2014, and theres no convincing sign itll be any easier in 2015. The banks remain attractive investment options but they too have their own risks. Is Lloyds Banking Group (LSE: LLOY) (NYSE: LYG.US) though about to become an obvious choice for earnings-hungry investors?
Well, like several of the other major banks, it has shown some signs of improvement over the past few months. Lloyds, though, is as we are all too painfully aware partly government owned (25%), so its performance history cant be directly related to its performance outlook. Investors are now keen to know what will likely happen when that parental support is taken away again, and whether the bank can ultimately survive on its own.
Lets take a look at whether the governments likely to bail out of the bank soon and whether Lloyds is worth holding onto.
Is Lloyds a solid investment?
The bank looks good at the moment. It recently reported a 35% rise in its underlying third quarter profit to 5.97 billion. Its net interest margin rose to 2.44% as expected, and impairment charges fell nearly 60%. Theres still no dividend to speak of so other financial metrics that Id normally discuss here become a little obsolete. Its worth noting though that current price targets in the City go as high as 115p.
A small part of the banks recent lift can also be attributed to its new digital strategy. Im no tech guru but as the bank becomes more digitally progressive, I suspect itll lose more and more staff and become more efficient. I dont think itll be as pleasant dealing with the bank over the phone, but thats just me.
Lloyds bottom line looks set to improve next year, but the risks it faces are very real. The bank funds around a third of all British lending. If rates stay low next year, policy makers will run the risk of creating a housing bubble (a bubble that will ultimately burst). If rates rise, theres the chance tightened policy will snuff out the economic recovery (which would hurt all the banks).
How it could play out
Lloyds valuation has improved over the past couple of months because its earnings outlook has become brighter. Its now at a level that has in the past triggered a divestment by the government. If the government (via UK Financial Investments) sells a further stake, the banks share price will likely fall as has also happened in the past. However, it will likely recover, assuming the bank can maintain its net interest margin, grow its balance sheet, and keep its costs down.
The government originally rescued Lloyds Banking Group because it was determined that the British economy shouldnt have to withstand a banking collapse of that size. Its a moral hazard that policy makers are still willing to accept. The bank has since stabilised and is looking for ways to grow its profit margin (as opposed to its size). While a lack of government support in the short term could be negative for the company, ultimately it will provide the board with more scope to compete for the best human resources through higher salaries and bonuses. Thats ultimately a positive for investors.
In addition, it may have only scraped through the ECBs stress tests, but that does at least pave the way for some form of dividend payment next year however small.
There is significant upside potential for Lloyds in 2015, but there are also risks and challenges that the lender will need to come to terms with and resolve. Welcome to the stock market: no pain, no gain; no risk, no reward.
Many investors buy into the banks because they traditionally have a sound risk/reward trade-off. Their earnings are relatively stable yet they offer reasonable yields. The Great Recession changed that, as did government intervention. Many of the banks are still worth considering, but what if we gave you some other stocks to think about that are just as good, if not better?
Have a read of this special free report from the Fools, The Fool’s Five Shares To Retire On. They’re not the most exciting of shares, but they’re companies you can confidently buy into and shouldn’t have to watch every day. The report is FREE and there’s absolutely no obligation to do anything more. Click here for your copy.
David Taylor has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don’t all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.