Citigroup Shareholders Beware

If you own stocks, undoubtedly you want management teams to feel an obligation to work for the shareholders. This boils down to striving to maximize shareholder value. Of course, attaining customer and employee satisfaction is important too, but succeeding on those fronts will usually aid in boosting a company’s public market value, so these factors go hand in hand.

If you own shares of Citigroup (Peridot does not) you might want to consider what CEO Chuck Prince said in response to a piece in Barron’s over the weekend about the possibility of breaking up the financial services giant. The weekly paper suggested that if Citigroup’s stock remains sluggish, there could be calls for the company to be broken up. The following is an excerpt from a Reuters story published Monday.

“In the article, however, Prince flatly rejected any discussion of splitting up the company into separate units. “Breaking up Citigroup is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of,” Barron’s quotes Prince as saying. “You would take a franchise that people have worked almost 200 years to build and break it up into two or three parts, only to see the parts acquired by others.”

Now why should Citigroup investors be upset with this? Within the financial services sector, only insurance companies garner P/E ratios lower than the big, diversified banking giants. Citigroup, along with JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America trade at only 10 or 11 times earnings. Many investors see this as cheap, but if the multiples don’t expand, share price appreciation will only come from earnings growth, which is hard to attain in any meaningful way since these firms are so huge.

The argument for breaking up a company like Citigroup is twofold; to achieve operational efficiencies, as well as a higher public market valuation. On the operations side, smaller firms are easier to manage and can move at a much faster pace in adapting to changing business environments. From the investor perspective, right now all of Citi’s business units are getting the meager 10 or 11 multiple. Breaking up into several pieces, the logic goes, will allow some units to get higher valuations, and thus the entire Citigroup enterprise would be more valuable.

I have seen specific break up estimates on Citigroup that value the parts at between $60 and $70 per share, versus the current price in the high 40’s. By splitting into 4 smaller companies (domestic retail banking, international retail banking, global asset management, and investment banking), Citigroup shareholders could make a hefty profit, perhaps 30% or more. Chuck Prince’s blatant dismissal of the idea doesn’t bode well for investors.

Was the Mastercard IPO Underpriced?

Lead underwriters Goldman Sachs (GS) and Citigroup (C) priced the Mastercard (MA) IPO Wednesday night at $39, below the expected range of $40 to $43 per share. On Thursday shares opened at $40.30 and then soared another $6 to close at $46 each. That trading action is quite baffling if you ask me.

Usually where the IPO is priced tells you how strong demand is, and subsequently, how well the stock will do upon opening for trading. The $39 pricing indicated to me that the smart money wasn’t very enthusiastic about the deal. Then less than 24 hours later the stock is fetching $46. If demand was that strong, they easily could have priced it within the proposed range.

The conclusion I draw from this is that the smart institutional money wasn’t sold on the price, but retail interest after the stock opened was strong. Following the retail crowd is rarely a good strategy, so I will put more weight into the $39 pricing than the $46 first day closing price. The stock’s valuation also supports the cautious view. Mastercard earned about $2 per share in 2005, so the P/E is north of 20x, very high for a financial services company.

Investors Punishing Legg Mason Unfairly

Shares of Baltimore-based Legg Mason (LM), a leading asset management firm, have been crushed lately and now sit more than 20 percent below their highs. At a recent quote of $111, the stock looks expensive at first glance. The company will report its fiscal fourth quarter numbers on May 10th, with consensus estimates at $4.18 in EPS for the year. How then are LM shares attractive at 26.5 times those profit expectations?

With their recently completed asset swap with Citigroup (C), Legg is now a pure play on asset management and should be able to boost margins substantially. Looking out to calendar year 2007, after the acquisitions has been fully digested and integrated, LM should be able to earn at least $7 per share. Put a reasonable 20 P/E on those profits, based on a double-digit growth rate and within the company’s historical valuation range, and you have a solid 30 points of upside.

Capital Depreciation

Shares of Capital One (COF) are continuing to fall after news of their nearly $15 billion bid for North Fork Bank (NFB). After hitting new highs at $90 per share, COF stock has dropped more than 10 percent to $80 and change. This sell-off is exactly what we saw after the company announced plans to buy Hibernia a year ago. History tends to repeat itself, and this instance should reinforce that view. Patient buyers will be well rewarded once the deal closes and investors realize how strong of a move it was. Momentum traders and merger arbs are causing longer term investors such as myself to salivate at the stock’s current price.

Capital One Gobbles Up 2nd Bank in North Fork

Given that Capital One Financial (COF) recently closed its acquisition of Hibernia, I was a little surprised to see that they are buying New York based North Fork (NFB) so soon after. Also interesting was the fact that news of this deal did not leak out whatsoever ahead of time. In case you missed it (I didn’t given that COF is a long-time Peridot holding), Capital One stock was up $4 on Friday to an all-time high.

Given that merger arbs will be shorting Capital One stock to play the deal out, we will likely see some of that huge gain given back this week. The stock is down $5 in pre-market trading. Nonetheless, COF management continues to execute on their strategy and shareholders will likely continue to reap the benefits. The NFB deal appears to be a good one for everyone involved. NFB holders get more than a 20 percent premium to Friday’s closing price, and yet COF is only paying 1.6 times book value, which is hardly considered high in the world of bank buyouts.

NYSE Investors Beware

Before you get caught up in the hype and go out and buy shares in NYSE Group (NYX), I urge you to do some basic valuation work. Shares of NYX, the newly formed public combination of Archipelago and the New York Stock Exchange, opened at $67 per share yesterday and proceeded to close at $80. Today the stock is up another $6 at the open. Current market value at $86 per share: $13.6 billion, based on 158 million shares outstanding.

The reason for the rise has more to do with limited supply than anything else. Retail investor interest has been strong so far, and there simply aren’t many shares available to buy. Much of the stock is being held by NYSE seat owners and member firms, who can’t sell it right now. A supply-demand imbalance is causing a short term spike, but a closer look at the company’s valuation makes it clear that anyone paying $86 is playing with fire.

Keep in mind that Archipelago (AX) stock traded at $17 before the merger with the NYSE was announced last year. The combination has resulted in a 400% increase in the value of that equity (AX shares became NYX shares beginning yesterday). I don’t doubt the deal will be accretive, but isn’t 400% a bit extreme?

AX was expected to earn $1.11 per share in 2006 before the deal closed. Even if that number winds up being $1.50 after the merger (a VERY optimistic projection), the current forward P/E of NYSE Group is 57 times. Buyer beware.

Investment Banks Shed Profitable Asset Management Divisions

Last year’s asset swap between Citigroup (C) and Legg Mason (LM) looked like a great move on the part of Legg. After all, retail brokers are hardly the future. Individual investors can only tolerate absurdly high commissions for so long, I would hope. Trading their retail brokers for Citi’s huge asset management division, including Smith Barney’s mutual funds, should be a huge lift for LM shareholders, and the stock’s movement since the deal was announced bears that out.Now we learn that Merrill Lynch (MER) has decided to send Merrill Lynch Investment Management (MLIM) to BlackRock (BLK) in exchange for a 49% stake in the newly formed asset management giant. As was the case with Legg Mason, Blackrock stock has gone through the roof on news of a deal.

Evidently this Merrill deal was a much better alternative than the “let’s change our fund company’s name to Princeton Research and Management and see if that helps get us more business.” Once Morgan Stanley’s deal to acquire BlackRock fell through, Merrill swooped in and decided it was a much better idea to hand over MLIM to a somebody who could better run it. Doing so also rids Merrill of having the appearance of conflicts of interest with its investment bankers, research analysts, and mutual fund managers all under the same roof.

So in a matter of months both Legg Mason and Blackrock have strengthened themselves as pure play asset managers, a business that has great margins. With the growing popularity of hedge funds and international investment options, their fortunes will be much less tied to the direction of the S&P 500 than they were five or ten years ago.

The stocks have soared, and on current profit estimates they do look pricey. However, it is apparent that margin expansion will occur, both due to cost-cutting and an overall higher average profit margin across the business. Accordingly, current analyst expectations for profits (about $6 for LM in 2006 and $5 for BLK) will prove quite conservative.

And they better since LM is trading over $130 and BLK recently hit $150 per share. It is entirely possible that 2006 is a transition year for the integration of these very large deals, but come 2007 and 2008, they should be coining money. Add in the fact that asset managers have always traded at a premium to the overall market and financial services sector, and the stocks could outperform for the rest of the decade even after the recent run-ups we’ve seen. Of the two, Legg Mason looks cheaper than Blockrock, however.

 

Flat Curve Could Hamper Commerce in Short Term

Shares of New Jersey based Commerce Bancorp (CBH) have been strong lately, along with other bank stocks, as investors hope the Fed will stop hiking interest rates when the Fed Funds rate hits 4.5% early next year. However, after a run from $27-$28 to $33-$34, shares of CBH could see weakness in the short term.

Although the company’s long term growth prospects remain among the brightest in the industry, the flatness of the yield curve will make it difficult for CBH to beat, or even meet, Wall Street’s profit expectations in both the fourth quarter and early 2006.

Any guidance reduction in Commerce’s soon-to-be-released mi- quarter update will likely cause a 5 to 10 percent sell-off in the stock. At that point, long term investors can be more aggressive with their positions.

Capital One Reports Another Excellent Quarter

Late Wednesday Capital One Financial (COF) reported 2nd quarter earnings of $2.03 per share, well ahead of analysts’ estimates of $1.75. Managed loans increased 13 percent to $83 billion and the company maintained its full year earnings guidance of $6.60 to $7.00 per share.

Capital One continues to be the best performing credit card company in the industry. They expect their pending acquisition of Hibernia Bank (HIB) to close on September 1st of this year, which will enable them to extend their product line into the branch model.

Despite the good news, investors still can pick up COF stock for 10.8 times 2006 earnings. Not a bad price at all for the leading company in the credit card space growing in the 10 to 15 percent range on an annual basis.

Bank of America/MBNA Deal Boosts Capital One

Credit card companies have been hot acquisition targets lately. The sale of Providian (PVN) sparked speculation that more deals would follow as independent card companies aren’t very plentiful. Today’s announcement that Bank of America (BAC) will buy MBNA (KRB) for $35 billion only furthers that thesis.

MBNA is getting a very nice premium, with the purchase price of $27 being about 30% above the stock’s $21 closing price yesterday. B of A is paying 13.5x MBNA’s 2005 EPS estimate of $2.00 per share. Such a price has resulted in a repricing of other credit card firms in the market. Longtime Peridot favorite Capital One (COF) is rallying $5 per share (7%) today. With Providian and MBNA now out of play, COF is the last remaining large credit card company without a merger partner.

The 13.5x multiple for KRB implies that COF shares remain undervalued. Capital One should earn $7 this year, making a implied buyout value of $95 per share, versus its $74 closing price yesterday (shares are up to $79 this morning). While the speculation today will be that COF will be next in line to get a bid, I seriously doubt they are interested in selling. Nonetheless, the stock remains both undervalued and a Peridot core holding even as they remain independent.