Is It Time to Buy Bear Stearns?

Whenever a good company falls upon hard times that could very well just be temporary, it pays for value investors to take a look and see if Wall Street has overly punished the stock. After the hedge fund blowups at Bear Stearns (BSC) recently (they made some bad bets in the mortgage market), BSC stock has retreated more than 30 points from its highs, as the chart below shows.

Is the stock a bargain? Well, I compared it with the other big investment banking companies and I expected to see more of a discrepancy in the valuations than I found. The Big 5 (Bear along with Goldman, Lehman, Merrill, and Morgan) all trade right around 10 times forecasted earnings for 2007. As P/E multiples go, buyers of BSC aren’t getting any discount compared with the likes of Goldman Sachs (GS). That didn’t exactly get me excited about bottom fishing with Bear.

I also looked at a ratio called price-to-tangible book value. This measure is the same as price-to-book, but ignores intangible assets that can’t be easily and quickly valued. Book value is perhaps the most important valuation metric for banks given that the vast majority of their assets are liquid financial instruments and all banks pretty much do the same things business-wise, for the most part.

On this measure Bear Stearns trades at a discount of 1.6 times net tangible assets. This compares with 3.1 times for Goldman and between 2.2 and 2.4 times for the other three major players in the industry. As you can see, investors are paying up for Goldman’s superior track record and management. While Bear is cheaper, the stock would probably have to get down to 1.5 times book or less for me to really get excited about it as a contrarian play. That is not to say the discount won’t narrow as the sub-prime issues subside, but 1.6 times book isn’t a price that I feel like I absolutely need to jump at. It’s cheap, especially relative to the other brokers, but not ridiculously cheap by any means.

Full Disclosure: No positions in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing