Investors are scouting an unlikely corner of the stock market: Indian private sector banks

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A pedestrian walks past a branch of ICICI Bank Ltd. in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013.

Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Big bank stocks in India are falling like nine pins. Some investors believe that the gloominess might be overdone.

Shares of private sector banks have had a wretched run of late. Investors had already cooled on the sector in recent years due to a confluence of factors: Economic growth which has slowed to a seven-year low, a worrying trend of loans gone sour in the broader banking system and concerns over corporate governance.

Then came the coronavirus outbreak, which further dealt a blow to economic activity and forced foreign investors, which rank among large owners of private sector bank stocks in India, to trim their holdings to make up for losses elsewhere, said Jiten Doshi, founder & chief investment officer at Enam AMC, a Mumbai-based money manager.

The National Stock Exchange’s Nifty banking index has fallen nearly 40% so far this year, underperforming the broader Nifty benchmark that is down 26%.

HDFC Bank, which traded at 4.5 times price-to-book value—a valuation measure—at the end of 2019, is now trading at 3 times price-to-book, while IndusInd Bank, which was trading at 4 times price-to-book is now down to a ratio of 1. ICICI Bank, which was trading at 3 times price-to-book is now trading below 1.8 times price-to-book. Kotak Mahindra Bank, which went from a price-to-book ratio of 5.5 to 4, is the most expensive among large private sector banks.

 The higher the price-to-book value ratio, the more expensive the stock.

The severity of the sell-off seems excessive to some investors and analysts, who believe shares of large banks, many of which have sturdy balance sheets and a modest exposure to the most susceptible pockets of the economy, are now looking relatively cheap compared to their fundamentals.

“The markets are concerned about lower loan growth, margins and higher operating costs due to the economic shutdown. The extent of earnings downgrade will depend on the length of the shutdown,” Rana Gupta, managing director at Manulife Investment Management, told CNBC.

“In our view, large private sector banks, which are exposed to better rated corporates and salaried individuals are better placed. In case of these banks, fall in share prices have made valuations attractive. Despite the near term being volatile, these banks should emerge stronger.” Gupta concluded.

That’s not to say that all concerns over bank stocks have been allayed.

 In a research note, Credit Suisse pointed out that the Reserve Bank of India’s multi-pronged easing measures would add pressure on net interest margins for banks as they would make less money when they lend funds at lower interest rates. The RBI recently not only cut key rates by 75 basis points but also infused liquidity worth $50 billion through various policy tools.

The central bank of India also announced a three-month moratorium on all term loans. Self-employed and small business borrowers will be most impacted and the trickle-down of stimulus benefits may be delayed, Credit Suisse said in a note.

Technical factors may also keep bank stocks under pressure.

 “The market is witnessing huge short selling. Unlike many global markets in Europe and Southeast Asia, India has not banned short selling which is leading to a lot of hedge funds creating panic in the market. Machine based trading is also triggering sales,” said Doshi of Enam AMC.

Although balance sheets for banks & financial institutions are now stronger than previous cycles, there will likely be pressure on profit & loss accounts due to ‘crisis of growth’ and risk aversion due to liquidity challenges, Goldman Sachs said. Still, the investment bank continues to maintain a “buy” rating on HDFC Bank and ICICI Bank given their stronger balance sheets.

Gurmeet Chadha, CEO of Complete Circle Consultants noted that larger banks appear to be doing a better job of tiding over the crisis than their smaller peers.

“Banks like HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank & Kotak Mahindra Bank saw growth in deposits & loans, that exceeded the industry average in Q4. The recent price action in financials suggests larger, well-run private banks are getting differentiated over smaller private banks,” Chadha said. Indian companies typically follow a financial year that runs from April to March.

While select business segments of IndusInd Bank have been adversely impacted due to the coronavirus outbreak and borrowing costs are expected to remain high, valuations look favourable, according to Motilal Oswal Securities, a local Indian brokerage which has a buy rating on the stock.

Chadha of Complete Circle Consultant agreed.

“Once the concerns on asset quality especially the small business, commercial vehicle & microfinance portfolios start improving & the deposit growth picks up with new capital infusion seen, the sentiment around IndusInd Bank can turn positive as valuations have become reasonable. This investment thesis would hold for smaller banks like RBL & Bandhan Bank too,” Chadha said.

Morgan Stanley estimates that due to capital buffers, HDFC Bank and Kotak Mahindra Bank are best placed to absorb bad loans of up to 16-17% of their total loan book.

Axis, ICICI Bank, IndusInd Bank, and RBL Bank are the next best-placed banks at 10-12% of their total loan book. State-owned banks and Federal Bank at 2%-5% of loans, are the most vulnerable.

“Any further intervention by the RBI,” Chadha of Complete Circle Consultants, told CNBC, “along the footsteps of the Federal Reserve on supporting small businesses can further ease pressure for small & medium sized enterprises that are being crippled by the COVID-19 lockdown.”

However, foreign investors, such as Hugh Young of Aberdeen Standard Investments, believe things could get worse before they get better.

“Large private banks in India certainly remain our preferred bet given their quality. The danger with them was always the valuation and of course general economic sensitivity. Admittedly even they will hurt a bit in any economic downturn and it looks as though it could be severe. Bottom line is our long-term conviction is intact, but there might well be further short-term pain,” Young said in an email.

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