Should I Buy Barclays?

LONDON -- I'm ready to go shopping for shares again, but where to start? Floundering fashion giant Burberry? High-spirited Diageo? Or maybe smoker's friend British American Tobacco?

There are plenty of great stocks to choose from, and I'm enjoying doing some window shopping. So here's the question I'm asking right now: Should I buy Barclays (LSE: BARC.L) (NYSE: BCS) ?

Barclays bumped
I finally lost patience with Barclays at the end of last year and sold my stake at the lowly price of 1.85 pounds. Its share price immediately shot up nearly 40% to hit 2.57 pounds in early March, on (forlorn) hopes of a eurozone bailout.

Timing was never my strong point.

Barclays has had a bumpy ride since then, as the road to recovery hits pothole after pothole. It stalled in early July, falling to 1.52 pounds, but has since motored back to 2.22 pounds. In these troubled times, the big banks are at the mercy of market sentiment. I regret selling Barclays in December, but should I buy it today?

This mortal coil
The big worry about investing in a global banking giants such as Barclays is that it is hard to know exactly what you are buying. Their operations are so complex, their accounts so opaque, that ordinary mortals can't take it all in.

The one thing banks have always been good at is making money. But as we know to our cost, they are also rather good at losing money, especially if it belongs to the taxpayer (and shareholders).

Risk on!
If you buy Barclays, you are buying risk. Financial risk, due to the British banking sector's exposure to Europe. Regulatory risk, as banks face one costly mis-selling scandal after another, from PPI to LIBOR interest rate rigging, which saw off chief executive Bob Diamond in July. And, of course, political risk, as politicians line up to give fat-cat bankers a crowd-pleasing kicking. None of these challenges are going away.

Barclays has a new chief executive, Antony Jenkins, said to be the "nice guy" of banking, who plans to transform Barclays and revive its reputation. He has a tough task ahead of him.

Being nice won't be enough on its own. Some have questioned whether Jenkins has the experience to lead such a sprawling setup, with around 150,000 employees worldwide.

It is too early to judge Jenkins, so investors are taking a punt on whether he can turn the bank around.

Lucky dip
I wouldn't buy any bank unless I planned to hold it for at least 10 years, but at least Barclays pays you to be patient, with a current yield of 2.7%.

Barclays also has a strong investment banking division, which should help drive its profits when the recovery does come. Its income grew 4% to nearly 6.5 billion pounds in the first six months of 2012, compared to the same period last year.

And unlike part-government owned rivals Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, you avoid the added uncertainty over when and how the government will eventually offload its stake.

Barclays has also reduced its sovereign exposures to Spain, Italy, Greece, and others by 22%, to 5.6 billion pounds. But like all the banks, it will remain at the mercy of the crisis it helped cause, so expect plenty of volatility ahead. I would buy Barclays, but only on the dips.

One share you might love
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Harvey owns shares in Diageo and RBS. He doesn't hold shares in any other company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has recommended shares in Burberry.