The 5 European Banks You Should Be Looking at Now

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If you want to earn anything above the market return, you ought to be looking at industries and companies that are either underfollowed or reviled. If there is one area from which people can't flee fast enough, it's the European banking sector. The eurozone sovereign debt crisis is like a toxic cloud hanging over the continent and financial institutions are (rightly) seen as the first potential victims. I can't think of a better place to begin looking for stock ideas.

3 criteria for success
In this type of contrarian investing, your job is to buy the baby, not the bathwater. In order to do that, you want to home in on stocks where the "headline exposure" may exceed the business risk. In this situation, I'd begin by looking at European banks that are:

  • Headquartered in non-eurozone countries
  • Well-capitalized
  • Cheap

Here are five banks, four Swedish and one Swiss, that fit the bill:

Banque Cantonale Vaudoise6.4%14.416.8%
Nordea(OTC: NRDEF)4.4%9.59.4%
Skandinavska Enskilda Banken(OTC: SVKEF)4.4%7.913.0%
Svenska Handelsbanken(OTC: SVNLY)4.8%10.619.1%
Swedbank(OTC: SWDBY)5.2%11.617.4%

*Based on closing prices Wednesday, June 6. Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Let me make some general points that apply to all five of these institutions:

  • Income: The shares pay a healthy dividend.
  • Balance sheet: They are solidly capitalized. For reference, JPMorgan (NYS: JPM) , which is considered to be one of the strongest U.S. banks, is actually a laggard relative to this group with regard to its core tier 1 capital ratio (10.4%) -- by a wide margin, in some cases.
  • Valuation: The shares are cheap on the basis of earnings multiples.

Sweden's "big four"
The last four of these banks form an oligopoly in the Swedish banking industry. The Swedish Bankers' Association refers to them simply as the "big four," and they represent roughly 70% of deposits in Sweden.

Sweden suffered a severe banking crisis in the early 1990s, and with memories fresh, it is probably no coincidence that its banks suffered relatively mildly from the global financial crisis. The industry remained solidly profitable despite substantial loan losses in 2009 and 2010.

Sweden's banking system is an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty, as is its broader economy; or as John Dizard wrote in an article published on the Financial Times website on Sunday:

Even so, the prospective fragmenting of the euro into differently valued national euros will be a more visible risk to the world's money managers. Why not, then, put some of those balances into a country and currency that has a low, and falling, debt to GDP, a current account surplus, well tested bank resolution and deposit protection schemes and stable, consensus politics?

In short, Sweden, its krona, its bonds, and its stocks.

Note, however, that some of the banks have substantial activities outside of Sweden, including Germany and the Baltic states.

Banque Cantonale Vaudoise
Banque Cantonale Vaudoise has seen one or two international banking crises since it was founded in 1845. The bank's name does not simply designate the bank's geographical origin -- the canton of Vaud remains its majority shareholder with just above two-thirds of the share capital (similar to the U.S., Switzerland is a federal entity, divided into "cantons").

Normally, I would view a state shareholding -- particularly a majority one -- in a private enterprise with some suspicion. That goes double for lending institutions; among the worst disasters in the Spanish banking crisis are the cajas, unlisted savings banks that were often controlled by regional politicians, which lent recklessly to finance home purchases and property development. However, Switzerland has a well-deserved reputation for conservatism and public integrity, as well as a long banking tradition.

Where to look for winners
Do you invest in individual stocks? If so, the odds are high that you'd be better off investing in index funds. However, if I can't persuade you to follow that route, then these are the sort of ideas you should be looking at. Note that I did not say "investing in," but "looking at' -- there is a crucial distinction. I have outlined a rationale for a potential opportunity, but it would take more work -- on your part -- to verify the opportunity to your satisfaction. Alternatively, if you'd like to find out about another group of ultra-low-risk financials, you'll want to read our free report "The Stocks Only the Smartest Investors Are Buying."

At the time this article was published Fool contributorAlex Dumortierholds no position in any company mentioned.Click hereto see his holdings and a short bio; you can follow him onLinkedIn. The Motley Fool owns shares of JP Morgan Chase. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days

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