NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Bank stock investors canvassing the industry for stock plays have a big decision to make now the nation's largest banks have reported earnings.
Should investors chase a long-expected earnings rebound at suffering banking giants like JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report), Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) potentially lifting shares from single digit price-to-earnings multiples, or should they put their money behind a safer premium-priced lenders like Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report), U.S. Bancorp (USB - Get Report), BB&T (BBT) and M&T Bank (MTB - Get Report)?
Second quarter earnings are proving once more that following Warren Buffett's bank stock investment plan in traditional lenders highlighted by Wells Fargo remains a simple and effective strategy in an industry marked by risk and hard-to-understand earnings.
Simply put, the 'Oracle of Omaha' has cast his money behind banks that are simultaneously growing earnings through bottom-line share repurchases and a top line mortgage lending rebound. At the same time, Buffett's been hesitant to put his money behind capital markets-oriented players like JPMorgan or pure-breed investment banks like Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS), which suffer from a Wall Street malaise, the burdens of new regulations and a slowly escalating European debt crisis.The allure of their single digit PE ratios relative to the mid-teen price multiples of the likes of Wells Fargo, US Bancorp and M&T Bank hasn't yet appealed to Buffett. By avoiding common stock bets on investment banks, Buffett's financial sector share investments have greatly outperformed most other investors, and second quarter earnings only reaffirmed his record. Since JPMorgan and Wells Fargo kicked off bank earnings season with stronger than expected earnings reports, it is the latter that has outperformed, according to Bloomberg data. When looking over Buffett's bank stock portfolio, the outperformance is even more marked. Since earnings season began, key stock plays like US Bancorp and M&T Bank are among the sector's top performers in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, meanwhile are among industry laggards. Of course Buffett made preferred share investments in Goldman and Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) during the height of the crisis, but these were essentially super-safe loans that guaranteed a return and did not reflect his common stock plays. While bank stock gains since the second week of July is a poor way to construct an investing plan, the share performance only reinforces multi-year trends that are also reflected in earnings statements. As Buffett continued to hold banks stocks as a key part of a U.S. economic recovery investment, the value investing guru has kept his chips smartly behind Wells Fargo -- which is projected to end 2012 as America's most profitable bank according to Bloomberg compilations of analyst estimates -- even if the battered share prices, titanic balance sheets and boom and bust earnings of money center giants lure some of the sectors smartest investors into sub-par investments.