Financials Sector Rating: Marketperform

Financials sector overview

The sector has been punished over the past couple of months—as interest rates have fallen and growth concerns have ramped up. With longer-term rates appearing to be capped and the Fed continuing to raise short rates, we continue to rate the sector at marketperform.

Market outlook for the financial services sector

The financial sector has stabilized recently after a rough patch as investors appear to be attracted to the lower valuations and solid balance sheets that appear to be in place, while the fall in yields has reversed a bit, also helping support the financial sector. To us, the selling looked to be a bit overdone unless we are headed into a deep recession or a financial crisis—neither of which we see in the cards at this point. As such, we kept and continue to keep our marketperform rating on the group and urge clients to remain patient.

Consumer and corporate balance sheets are in substantially better shape than they were in 2008, helping us to maintain confidence in the financial sector’s ability to avoid a repeat of the debacle seen in that period. Corporate cash balances in many areas, such as technology, are high but we are concerned that the increased trade tensions may modestly negatively affect corporate confidence and result in delays in merger-and-acquisition activity, as well as perhaps depressing loan demand. We are also paying attention to the record-high debt load held by nonfinancial corporations (Federal Reserve-Financial Accounts of the United States). With good cash and low interest rates we aren’t overly concerned yet—but it is an area worth paying attention to.

We believe there are still plenty of positives for the group, as Fed rate hikes have boosted interest income, balance sheets appear solid, and dividend payments from major banks have been increased based on announcements and payouts from some of the largest institutions as seen on FactSet. But there are certainly challenges, such as slowing mortgage demand as interest rates have increased, and a potential reining in of loan demand as mentioned above—but we don’t think they rise to the level of crisis that the recent price action seems to indicate.

We maintain relative confidence in the ability of the financial services industry to reshape itself and adjust to the changing environment, but believe now is an appropriate time to ease back a bit and have a more neutral position.

Factors that may affect the financials sector

Positive factors for the financial sector include:

  • Modestly rising interest rates: Higher rates across the curve should mean financial companies can earn more on the cash they hold and the loans they make.
  • Improving consumer finances: Reduced debt loads for consumers lowers the risks of defaults by that group in the coming year. Also, it gives consumers room to add to debt should they desire to do so, which it now appears to be happening.

Negative factors for the financial sector include:

  • Rapidly higher interest rates: Interest rates that move up too high or too fast could dampen demand for mortgages, which could affect profits in certain areas of the financial sector.
  • Flattening yield curve:Should the spread between long-term and short-term interest rates shrink further, financials would likely struggle.
  • Trade concerns: Corporate confidence could be dented, resulting in a lessening demand for loans and a reduction in merger and acquisition activity.
  • Legislative concerns: With the Democrats coming into control of the House of Representatives, there have been comments by members that deregulation has gone too far and they may look to undo some the loosening that has occurred.

Clients can see our top-rated stocks in the financials sector.

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