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Best-Performing Bank Stocks Are Also Among the Cheapest

Mutascio said "the market seems to be more optimistic than us as to when short-term interest rates will rise," adding that the increase in the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury securities -- which climbed to 1.98% on Friday from about 1.60% in early December -- "is not a needle mover," because Comerica's earnings power isn't tied to long-term rates.

With the Federal Reserve in December indicating that it would keep the short-term federal funds target rate in a range of zero to 0.25% as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5% and inflation is kept in check, Mutascio said "we think the market may be pricing in an operating environment for Comerica that is a bit too optimistic."

For more on how banks are fighting to boost their earnings in a hostile rate environment, see TheStreet's Bank Stocks and the Secret of NIM.

Stifel Nicolaus estimates that U.S. Bancorp will earn $3.25 a share in 2014. Mutascio said the bank "is projected to generate the highest 2014 ROA (by a wide margin) of any large-cap bank in our coverage universe," but asked why "for such substantially greater profitability, the market is only willing to pay a half-multiple premium" -- 10.2 times versus 9.7 times?

Before answering that question with another question, Mutascio compared U.S. Bancorp with BB&T (BBT), also of Dallas, which had an ROA of 1.11% in 2012, with shares closing at $30.97 Friday, trading for 9.8 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $3.15, for a forward P/E only slightly lower than U.S. Bancorp's. Stifel Nicolaus estimates that BB&T's 2014 ROA will be 1.23%, with EPS of $3.10.

"Both companies are buyers, not sellers, have solid management teams and are considered high quality institutions by many investors," Mutascio said. "We agree. But why are their profitability levels valued the same -- especially when a greater portion of BB&T's profits are enhanced by accretable yield contribution?"

Investors need to answer that question for themselves. Meanwhile, U.S. Bancorp continues to outperform, as far as earnings are concerned.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report) is another interesting example of a stock that investors are punishing, apparently for last year's hedging debacle. The company's 2012 ROA was 0.94%. The shares closed at $47.16 Friday, trading for just 8.2 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $5.75.

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