As has been evident at investor briefings in recent days, Australian banks appear to be conceding that their past relatively high (by global standards) returns on equity can’t be sustained, due to pressure on net-interest margins and increased capital requirements. That said, given the underperformance of banks over the past year or so – especially compared to other high yield sectors like listed property – this downward adjustment in profitability has arguably already been priced into valuations. At least on a relative basis, the Australian financials sector now appears good value, especially if long-term bond yields rise further. What’s more, concerns that new capital requirements could crimp bank dividend yields may be misplaced.
Banks “miss the boat”
As seen in the chart below, the Australian banking sector has underperformed other high-yielding sectors such as listed property over the past year or so. The decline in bank share price valuations since the peak in the Australian equity market in early 2015 is particularly notable. The recent underperformance of listed property – reflecting rising global bond yields – has so far only partly unwound the sector’s outperformance versus banks since early 2014.
Higher interest rates favour banks over other “defensive yield” sectors
Note to the extent that global bond yields continue to rise over the coming year, this is more likely to hurt other so-called “defensive yield” sectors such as listed property and utilities, as their valuations (or “cap rates”) are largely tied to competing returns available from fixed-income securities. Banks, by contrast, may benefit to the extent higher long-term rates would allow them to improve net-interest margins by increasing the interest rates they can charge on some business and household loans – a benefit, we have noted, that also applies to global banks.
Indeed, while helping support credit demand, RBA rate cuts over the past year have also placed downward pressure on local bank net-interest margins, due to the banks inability to push already low deposit rates closer to zero, or even negative territory. Provided it does not overly crimp credit demand, an eventual modest lift in local official interest rates may help banks restore some of the recent erosion in interest-margins.
High capital requirements need not hurt long-run dividend yields
One concern with regard to the banking sector is that the regulatory demands for more capital could hurt returns on equity – and ultimately dividends. As seen in the chart below, capital ratios for major banks have lifted particularly sharply over the past year or so, reflecting around $27 billion in new equity from capital raisings and retained earnings.
For example, the standard “Gordon dividend growth model” tells us that a company’s dividends per share (D) can be thought of as a product of its book value per share (BV), return on equity (ROE), and dividend payout ratio, as seen in the equation below
Dividing through by the company’s share price, and re-working the equation tells that that the dividend yield (D/P), is related to ROE, price-to-book value (P/BV or PBV) and payout ratio, as follows.
In other words, to the extent the downward pressure on bank returns on equity are reflected in a downward adjustment in price-to-book value (as has been evident in the past year) then its possible for banks to preserve still relatively attractive dividend yields going forward – the price of which has already largely been paid for by existing shareholders through having had to endure some downward adjustment in valuations.
On this view, banks on a price-to-book value basis might now be closer to “fair-value” than cheap, even though valuations by this metric are now somewhat below their long-run average. Relative to other sectors of the market, however, banks are arguably better value – especially compared to “defensive yield” sectors such as listed property, utilities and telecommunication in an environment of rising bond yields.
The BetaShares S&P/ASX 200 Financials Sector ETF (QFN)
Based on the closing value of the Fund as at end-September, QFN had a trailing 12-month net yield of ~4.9% p.a. and a grossed up distribution yield of 6.9% p.a*.
*Yield figures calculated by summing the prior 12 month net and gross per unit distributions divided by the fund closing NAV per unit. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance