Banco Santander's rough quarter

The bank is hoping for opportunities when new rules force other Spanish institutions to go under or sell out.

By Jim J. Jubak Feb 1, 2012 2:11PM
Image: Arrow Down Umbrella (© Photographers Choice RF/SuperStock)When do you demand that all your competitors report kitchen-sink quarters? When you're convinced that their kitchen sinks are bigger than yours -- and when you believe that some at least will go under from the effort of heaving them out the window.

The huge plunge in fourth-quarter earnings at Banco Santander (STD), Spain's biggest bank, drew most of the attention Tuesday after the company reported its financial results. Net income fell for the quarter to 47 million euros from 2.1 billion euros a year earlier. The results fell just a bit short of the consensus Wall Street estimate of 1.78 billion euros for the quarter. (Banco Santander is a member of my Dividend Income portfolio.)

The quarter wasn't nearly the complete shipwreck that those numbers suggest -- if you just look at the results from Santander’s current operations. Net interest income rose to 7.97 billion euros in the fourth quarter from 7.33 billion euros a year ago. Lending across the group grew by 3.6% year to year. Deposits were up 2.6%.

European banks in general, and certainly Spanish banks, still haven't seen the peak of bad loans, however. Bad loans inched upwards to 3.89% of total loans at the end of the quarter from 3.86% at the end of the third quarter. And Banco Santander booked provisions for loan losses of 2.8 billion euros in the quarter, up from 2.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Results from the bank's operations in Spain, the United Kingdom and Brazil -- all countries where economic growth slowed in the fourth quarter -- were particularly negative. Profit for the quarter from Spain drove off a cliff, falling to 29 million euros from 320 million euros in the fourth quarter of 2010. Earnings from Brazil dipped to 637 million euros in the fourth quarter from 751 million euros a year earlier. Earnings from the United Kingdom fell to 388 million euros from 436 million euros.

And that wasn't the end of the bad news. Banco Santander took a huge 3.18 billion euro writedown that included charges for its holdings of Spanish real estate (1.8 billion euros of the total), goodwill at the bank’s Portuguese unit (600 million euros), write downs of other portfolio holdings, and charges for amortizing pensions and other intangibles. The real estate writedowns were enough to increase provisions to now cover 50% of the 8.55 billion in real estate holdings on the bank’s books. That’s an increase in provisions from 31% before this quarter.

That was all compelling -- if very negative -- reading. But what interested me is that rather than complaining about pressure from the recently elected Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy on banks to recognize losses on their real estate portfolios, Santander chairman Emilio Botin just about yelled: Bring it on.

The Spanish administration's plan to make banks acknowledge higher losses on real estate assets "goes in the right direction" and "these provisions must be fully made this year," Botin told reporters in Madrid. Any lender that can't show it's viable "should be sold," he said.

Which is exactly what Botin and Santander are counting on. In the midst of slowing economies and huge real estate write downs, Santander has actually increased its core capital under the current Basel II rules to 10.2% in December from 9.42% at the end of the third quarter. On Jan. 9, the bank said it had met the 9% core capital requirement under European Banking Authority rules six months ahead of the authority’s June deadline.

Santander knows that while it and Spain's second-largest bank, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya (BBVA), will be able to meet new capital rules and write down real estate portfolios at the same time, many of Spain's other banks won’t. They’re counting on a big chunk of Spain's banking industry either going under or selling out (to them if the price is right) in the not too distant future. 

After spending much of the last decade expanding outside their Spanish base -- a diversification that is turning out to critical to surviving this crisis -- the two big Spanish banks see a big opportunity to grab a bigger share of their home market. (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya is a member of my Jubak’s Picks portfolio.)

For Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao, this crisis is too good to waste.

The other critical piece of news in Banco Santander’s quarterly report was management's pledge to keep its dividend at 60 euro cents a share in 2012. With the stock closing in Madrid Tuesday at just below 6 euros a share, that’s a dividend yield of 10%.

This quarter isn’t the last bad news out of Banco Santander. The bank says that it will complete the clean up of its real estate portfolio in 2012 -- which certainly promises another kitchen-sink quarter or two. (I'd expect the bank to write down another 2 billon euros in its real estate portfolio.) And I'm sure that Banco Bilbao will add its own bad news to the stew when it reports on Thursday.

But I'm glad to see a kitchen sink or two from Banco Santander on the trash heap. I don't think you need to rush in to build a position now (although anytime the stock trades below 6 euros in Madrid, I think it’s worth while adding to positions in either those shares or the New York ADR.) In the short term -- that is by mid-2012 -- I think this is an $8.50 per unit ADR. (Up from $7.88 at the close Tuesday but don’t forget the 10% dividend yield.) Longer-term, say December, 2012, when the bank has finished write offs and ended its need to raise capital, my target is still $12 per ADR.

And there is that 10% yield.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund owned shares of Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 
Tags: STD
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