Updated with Bank of America and Citigroup upgrades.
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- While the business media tends to focus on stocks that are hot right now, it can pay to take a longer-term approach on occasion.
An excellent way to pick bank stocks at the beginning of 2012 turned out to be focusing on the beleaguered big names trading at the greatest discounts to tangible book value, which included Bank of America (BAC - Get Report), which was trading for just 0.4 times tangible book value after dropping 58% during 2011, and Citigroup (C - Get Report), which traded for roughly half its tangible book value after falling by 44%, there was a host of large-bank plays trading at significant discounts to book value. Bank of America's stock wound up returning 110% during 2012, while Citigroup's shares returned 51%.
The book-value plays are no longer an obvious way to go. Shares of Bank of America traded for 0.9 times their reported Sept. 30 tangible book value of 13.48, when they closed-out 2012 at $11.61. Citigroup's shares closed at $39.56 Monday, trading for 0.8 times their reported Sept. 30 tangible book value of $52.70.Then again, with Congress and President Obama averting the Fiscal Cliff late on Tuesday, some analysts believe that these two stocks will be headed much higher. Guggenheim analyst Marty Mosby on Thursday closed his "short-term trading sell" call on Bank of America, saying that the Fiscal Cliff agreement "mitigates much of the economic short-run bite," that would have been felt if the full set of mandated federal income tax increases and spending cuts had taken place. Mosby rates Bank of America a "Buy," with a $14 price target. Also on Thursday, Sterne Agee analyst Todd Hagerman upgraded Citigroup to a "Buy" rating from a neutral rating, while raising his price target for the shares to $50 from $38, saying that the appointment of Michael Corbat as CEO in October was "a game changer." Citigroup last month announced a series of moves cut annual expenses by up to $1.1 billion by laying off 11,000 employees and closing 84 branches while giving up only $300 million in annual revenue. Hagerman said that Citi "operates a unique global banking franchise, which would be extremely difficult to replicate and has re-emerged as a compelling restructuring play heading into 2013. As the banking industry continues its climb back to what analysts call "normalized earnings," another approach that might work for investors looking to make long-term investments is to focus on names trading at low multiples to consensus forward earnings estimates, which we discussed in 10 Cheapest Bank Stocks for 2013. But when we consider the ridiculous last-minute fiscal cliff negotiations that were completed this week in Washington, the next round of federal debt-ceiling brinksmanship that will probably come in February, the uncertainty in Europe, the continued tightening of bank regulation in the U.S., the narrowing net interest margins and the credit crisis that many banks are still working their way to overcome, there could be some big surprises in store for bank stock investors. Using data provided by Thomson Reuters Bank Insight, TheStreet has identified 34 actively traded banks -- with average daily trading volume of over 50,000 shares -- that have achieved positive returns on average tangible common equity for every single quarter since the beginning of 2006. That means they made money right through the credit crisis and beyond, without even having to book a bad quarter in order to beef-up loan loss reserves. While this approach may leave out many bargains for traders and sell-side analysts forced only to consider 12-month price targets, these banks keep making money, and when a bank continues to build capital, good things eventually happen for investors, including dividend increases and share buybacks, which raise forward earnings estimates, supporting higher stock valuations. Of course, this approach excludes banks that went public since the first quarter of 2006, leaving out plenty of good performers. In order to narrow down the list and consider the "new reality" for banks in the post-credit crisis environment, we pared the list to eight banks with returns on average tangible common equity of at least 10% for the entire period from the first quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2012. With these eight banks not having the wonderful (or potential) "rags to riches" stories of so many of the best-known U.S. banks, some of the stocks were not stellar performers during 2012, and one was down for the year. However, all of them had positive returns over five years, while the KBW Bank Index (I:BKX), was down 42% from the end of 2007 through Monday's close at 51.28. The five banks with the best returns on average tangible common equity since the beginning of 2010 are discussed below. Here are the other three:
- Cullen/Frost Bankers (CFR - Get Report) of San Antonio, Texas. The company's return on average tangible equity from the first quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2012 was 13.38%. The stock closed at $54.27 Monday, returning 6% for 2012 and 23% for three years, through Monday's close. The five-year total return of was 27%
- NBT Bancorp (NBTB) of Norwich, N.Y. The company's return on average tangible equity from the first quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2012 was 14.32%. The shares closed at $20.27 Monday, down 5% in 2012 and returning a negative 16% for three years, through Monday's close. The five-year total return was 7%.
- First Financial Bankshares (FFIN) of Abilene, Texas. The company's return on average tangible equity from the first quarter of 2010 through the third quarter of 2012 was 16.26%. The shares closed at $39.01 Monday, returning 20% during 2012. The three-year total return was 18.5% and the five-year total return was 79%.