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Banks' Tobacco Moment May Smell Sweet: Street Whispers

Corrected, with references and data related to Philip Morris replaced with Altria.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As speculation over banks' exposure to the Libor manipulation scandal heated up following a big fine and management shakeup at Barclays PLC (BCS), The Economist got some attention by citing an anonymous bank CEO who called it the industry's "tobacco moment"--arguing litigation costs could rival the more than $200 billion paid out by the tobacco industry in 1998.

But Atlantic Equities analyst Richard Staite wonders whether a different kind of comparison might be made between banks and tobacco companies--one that would have investors running toward bank stocks rather than away from them.

Staite believes that by increasing share buybacks and dividend payouts, banks may be able to reward shareholders without growing earnings substantially. In a phone interview, Staite admitted he hadn't studied tobacco companies to see if the comparison made held up. Still, a back of the envelope calculation suggests the analyst may be on to something.

Coming out of the 2008 crisis, banks have widely been faulted by analysts for failing to meaningfully grow revenues. It turns out, though, that slow revenue growth doesn't necessarily have to equate to poor shareholder returns.

Assuming JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Wells Fargo (WFC) hit 2012 analyst estimates, they will have grown revenues by 57% and 139%, respectively, since 2006. Remember 2006 was pre-crisis, so it seems safe to assume revenue growth that if revenues grew at that rate from boom to bust, they will grow a bit faster in the future--even if the economy doesn't pick up dramatically from here.

But even that rate of revenue growth, it turns out, is better than the 29% rate the U.S. tobacco division of what is known today as Altria (MO) posted during the same period.

However, Altria shares have nearly doubled since the start of 2006, compared to gains of roughly 9% for Wells Fargo and 4% for JPMorgan. That doesn't even include dividends, which would skew the balance even further in the direction of Altria.

The comparison suggests that if banks get increased permission from regulators to buy back shares and raise dividends they might be able to do a whole lot better for shareholders than they've done in recent years.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

Follow this writer on Twitter.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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