These Bank Stocks are the Best Housing Play: Goldman Sachs

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The recovery in housing is yet to be fully priced into bank stocks, making them the last inexpensive way to play the housing recovery, Goldman Sachs analysts said in a report Tuesday.

Banks have gained significantly year to date but have still underperformed other sectors with leverage to the housing market- such as homebuilders.

"While homebuilders remain the pure-play way of gaining exposure to this theme, those stocks are up 61% since 2011 (including 92% in 2012) and we believe banks stocks remain one of the few "inexpensive" ways to gain exposure to a recovery in the housing market," according to Goldman.

Not all banks are equal when it comes to benefiting from the housing recovery, however. The analysts' estimates for earnings upside for banks vary from 4% to 23%. Exposure to the boom-bust states such as the southeast and those with a significant presence in mortgage banking are likely to be the best picks.

Overall, the analysts see a 12% upside to 2013 earnings estimates for the sector, with Regions Financial ( RF), Citigroup ( C), Wells Fargo ( WFC) and EverBank Financial ( EVER) having the most upside based on current valuations.

Regions Financial remains "one of the most levered banks to an improvement in housing" with 35% of its home loans in Florida, where home prices are up 7% year to date, the analysts note. Goldman has a $9 price target for the stock, implying a 22% upside.

The analysts also believe Citigroup has more upside from the housing recovery than the market anticipates. Although Citi's exposure to residential mortgages is now low, lower credit losses in its non-core Citi Holdings portfolio could be a lever for the bank. "Better home prices should allow for the quicker rundown of Citi Holdings to reduce its drag on P&L. Additionally, C would be the most inexpensive name in our coverage universe in a housing recovery scenario, trading at 5.9x," the analyst wrote.

Wells Fargo's strength in mortgage banking is well known, but "Our analysis highlights an underappreciated earnings lever for WFC given an improvement in the housing market: increased revenue from better residential loan growth. 41% of WFC's loan book is tied to residential real estate, and improving housing prices could signal a return to growth here," said the analysts, who have a price target of $41 on the stock.

EverBank has considerable upside from housing as well given its "large concentration in housing related loans (2x peer average), out-sized mortgage origination business (20% of 2013 revenue or 4x peers), lower housing related credit/workout costs, and potential recoveries on the Bank of Florida marked loans."

While Bank of America ( BAC) and SunTrust ( STI) are significantly levered to an improvement in housing, the analysts remain neutral.

In the case of Bank of America, higher legal costs mortgage servicing and workout costs will continue to be a drag on expenses even if credit quality improves. The analysts also continue to see heightened putback risk from both the agencies and private labels. And the stock still trades at a premium to JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) and Citigroup.

SunTrust might also continue to be weighed down by continued weakness in Atlanta and extended foreclosure timelines in judicial states such as Florida.

--Written by Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York

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