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5 Rational Bank Stock Picks for an Irrational Market

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As we continue to highlight defensive bank plays for investors, TheStreet has identified five bank holding companies that have achieved strong, consistent earnings results through thick and thin.

These names have pulled back along with the rest of the banking sector, although the case can be made that the pullback for this group is simply irrational. Then again, an irrational market sets up good plays for investors.

While at this point in the credit cycle many banks are seeing significant boosts to earnings as their credit quality improves and they release loan loss reserves, there are banks out there that have managed to continue posting excellent results, quarter after quarter.

Beginning with a list of all publicly traded U.S. bank and thrift holding companies - except for those traded on the Pink Sheets -- we excluding companies whose return on average assets (ROA) dipped below 1% in any of the past 10 quarters, according to SNL Financial. That left us with 16 holding companies, and we narrowed down the list to the five with the highest average trading volume over the past three months.

For the ROA calculation, we went with net income before extraordinary items as a percentage of average assets.

Why focus on ROA? During the "good times" for the banking industry, investors have a tendency to focus on return on average equity (ROE), and while this can make sense "all things being equal," all things are not equal.

A high ROE could mean that a company isn't strongly capitalized. Another problem with ROE is that the figures for banks that have been boosting their capital levels through the credit crisis have become distorted.

An honorable mention goes to First Republic Bank (FRC - Get Report) of San Francisco, which was spun-off from Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) in 2010, after being acquired along with Merrill Lynch in 2009. According to SNL Financial, First Republic's ROA has exceeded 1.20% since the third quarter of 2009, which is as far back as the data is available.

A second honorable mention goes to Westamerica Bancorporation (WABC), which didn't make the group of five because of lower trading volume. The company has achieved an ROA exceeding 1% since the fourth quarter of 2008. Westamerica's second-quarter ROA was 1.73%.

Here are the five actively traded bank holding companies that have posted good -- or better -- earnings results for the past 11 quarters, in descending order by price-to-forward-earnings ratios. Three out of five are headquartered in Texas.
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