Aussie big four banks overpriced

Australia’s big four banks have raised significant amounts of new capital as the realization finally dawned on regulators that they were highly leveraged and likely to act as “an accelerant rather than a shock-absorber” in the next downturn.

Chris Joye writes in the AFR that the big four have raised $36 billion of new capital in the 2015 financial year:

Before Westpac’s $3.5 billion equity issue this week, the big banks had, through gritted teeth, accumulated $27 billion of extra equity over the 2015 financial year through “surprise” ASX issues, underwritten dividend reinvestment plans, asset sales and organic capital generation via retained earnings. If you add in “additional tier one” (AT1) capital issues (think CBA’s $3 billion “Perls VII”), total equity capital originated rises to about $32 billion, or almost $36 billion after Westpac’s effort this week.

The effect of deleveraging is clearly visible on the ASX 300 Banks Index [XBAK].

ASX 300 Banks Index

Having broken primary support, the index is retracing to test resistance at 84. Bearish divergence on 13-week Twiggs Money Flow, followed by reversal below zero, both warn of a primary down-trend. Respect of resistance at 84 would strengthen the signal, offering a (medium-term) target of 68* for the next decline.

* Target calculation: 76 – ( 84 – 76 ) = 68

Matt Wilson, head of financial research at the $10 billion Australian equities shop JCP Investment Partners, says the bad news for those “long” the oligarchs is that “we are still only halfway through the majors’ capital raising process at best”.

Chris calculates the remaining shortfall to be at least $35 billion:

Accounting for future asset growth, I calculated the big banks will need another $35 billion of tier one capital if the regulator pushes them towards a leverage ratio of, say, 5.5 per cent by 2019, which is still well below the 75th percentile peer.

One of the big four’s most attractive features is their high dividend-yield and attached franking credits, but Chris compares this to the far lower dividend payout ratios of international competitors and quotes several sources who believe the present ratios are unsustainable.

JCP’s Wilson does not think payout ratios are sustainable and accuses the big banks of “over-earning”. “Bad debts of 0.15 per cent are running at a 63 per cent discount to the through-the-cycle trend of 0.40 per cent,” he says. “Should we see a normal credit cycle unfold, then payouts will be cut significantly due to the pro-cyclicality of risk-weighted assets calculations and bad debts jumping above trend.”

He concludes:

Aboud [Stephen Aboud, head of LHC Capital Fund] reckons artificially high yields also explain why the big banks’ “2.5 times price-to-book valuations are miles above the 1-1.5 times benchmark of global peers”, which he describes as “a joke”.

Plenty of food for thought.

Read more from Chris Joye at Hedge funds that shorted the big banks | AFR