Austerity Be Damned: These Spanish Banks Look Good at Current Prices

Spain is an economic black hole at the beginning of Europe, sucking in any investor or consumer unlucky enough to be in its vicinity. Which, of course, presents buying opportunities for investors bold enough to creep toward the edge. This will be particularly apparent in the next few months now that the country has unveiled its austerity draft budget. Spain has some intriguing financial stock opportunities available, and there's potential value for those who aren't spooked by higher-than-average country risk.

Latin flavor
What some might not realize about the nation's most prominent global stocks is that, at the end of the day, they aren't really very Spanish at all. The top example is the sprawling financial multinational Banco Santander (NYS: SAN) . The bank has a presence in nearly every Spanish-speaking nation on earth, as well as other big economies like the U.S. It derives half of its revenues and profits from Latin America, a region that, despite some recent rough patches (e.g., Brazil), is expected to grow fairly well.

The Latin focus is standard practice for Spanish multinationals these days. Just look at Telefonica (NYS: TEF) , which took in 48% of its total revenue from the region in its most recent quarter. Growth in that part of the world offset the company's slide in European turnover.

This is to be expected, because Santander and Telefonica's native continent, bogged down by laggards and losers (Italy and Greece, not to mention its home country) remains a drag. For the former, though, this is not as big as some might think; as of this past May, Santander held around 58 billion euros ($76 billion) in European government debt. This was less than 10% of its net customer loan figure (as it stood at the half-year mark).

In terms of overall gross customer loans, Europe consumes only 40% of the bank's total, with Spain in particular at 28%. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, while not the model of financial health, is nevertheless doing better than its more blighted continental brethren; it took 35% of the bank's total. The remaining customer loan book was split between Latin America (19%) and the U.S. (6%), which, taken as a whole, have better prospects than Europe.

And despite the stiff wind of Europe's financial crisis blowing in its face, the company is still managing to improve some of its key metrics. It grew net interest income by 8% in 1H 2012; contrast that with a U.S. biggie like Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , which saw an annual drop in same by 11% this past quarter.

Santander also spits out a relatively high dividend for the banking sector at $0.58 per share, for a yield of over 7% (Bank of America's payout of $0.04 equates to less than 1%). Additionally, the bank's shares still look relatively cheap despite an optimistic run-up since this past June, when Europe's Powers That Be approved a bailout for Spain's banks of up to $125 billion. The stock trades at a forward P/E of barely over 9, a shade lower than that of its clunky American rival.

Busy little brother
On the subject of dividends, Santander's smaller though still global rival BBVA (NYS: BBVA) also seems to be holding steady with its payout. This is nice because its current yield is 5%, a high rate for any stock and lofty for the banking sector. The company's 24 billion euros in cash provides plenty of funds for that payout, which amounts to a total of around 1.7 billion euros per year.

What's more encouraging is BBVA's growth in net interest income, which, at 15% year over year this past 2Q, was nearly double the aforementioned metric of rival Santander. That growth figure even ran circles around that of Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) , a current darling among investors of American banks.

Like Santander, BBVA has a strong presence in Spain, meanwhile it derives a little more of its take (53% of net interest income, to be precise) from Latin America. Such a number is encouraging, as net interest income from the latter grew at a 14% annual clip in 2Q. Unlike its competitor, BBVA is also active in Eurasia (5% of overall net interest income).

The stock prices of BBVA and Santander have more or less moved in step over time and several of their per-share metrics are close. Investors considering investing in one or the other have to decide whether a higher dividend yield (Santander) or a lower forward P/E valuation plus a wider asset base (BBVA) is more important to them.

Safely diversified
No one's betting on Spain to pull out of its crisis easily and quickly. Expect plenty of political dancing and noise over the draft budget, not to mention more of the protests that have clogged the streets of the nation's cities. It's a bad time for any company heavily involved in that economy; Santander and BBVA are fortunate that most of their activities aren't conducted anywhere near it.

Those two companies came to prominence in Spain and have since enjoyed success throughout the world. We've got a line on several firms poised to rule not only their domestic markets, but also many of the foreign markets they enter. Find out which companies they are in our FREE report, "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World," available for immediate download when you click here.

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