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Banks Primed for Growth (Part 2)

Stocks in this article: PBCT FIF CFR

The following story is the second in a series highlighting investment opportunities among the most strongly capitalized community and regional banks and thrifts with high prospects for growth. The first strong banks story was published yesterday.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- TheStreet.com's series on banks and thrifts with excellent growth and expansion prospects began with the two largest companies on the following list, People's United Financial (PBCT), which has agreed to acquire Financial Federal (FIF), and Hudson City Bancorp (HCBK).

We narrowed the list of 920 publicly traded U.S. banks and thrifts for which September financial information was available (provided by SNL Financial), using the following criteria: tangible common equity ratio above 7%; positive return on assets for the first three quarters of 2009; nonperforming-assets ratio less than 2%; ratio of loans/total assets above 50%; year-to-date net charge-offs of less than 1% of average loans; average trading volume above 50,000 shares a day; any Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) has been repaid; total assets over $5 billion.

While it might seem counter intuitive, look for weaknesses when considering bank stocks that might benefit most in the economic recovery. Yesterday's profile on Hudson City Bancorp highlighted the company's narrow net interest margin, which is far behind the industry average.

The third company on the list is Cullen/Frost Bankers (CFR) of San Antonio. Primarily a commercial lender, the company had a 4.2% net interest margin for the first three quarters of the year, the highest of the group.

Cullen/Frost also had the highest return on average assets (ROA) for the first three quarters, at 1.1%, down from 1.53% in the previous year, with provisions for loan-loss reserves taking a toll.

The bank's shares have returned 4% this year and are relatively pricey, closing at 2.1 times tangible book value, the second-highest in our comparison. Then again, during more "normal" years such as 2006 and 2007, when the company's return on average assets exceeded 1.6%, the stock was trading at higher than three times tangible book value.

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