During the financial crisis, the regional banks performed better than the money center giants, which were held down by losses in their derivatives businesses. In 2008, iShares U.S. Regional Banks lost 33.6%, compared to a decline of 54.7% for Financial Select Sector SPDR ( XLF), which is dominated by money center institutions. Although the regional banks have already recorded huge gains since the financial crisis, it seems likely that they can continue performing well. Pressured by regulators, most banks have been tightening their lending standards. That will limit defaults, helping to protect profits. To hold regional banks, consider SPDR S&P Regional Banking, with $2 billion in assets, or iShares U.S. Regional Banks ( IAT), with $510 million. An intriguing way to own a dose of insurers and banks is FAM Value ( FAMVX), an actively managed mutual fund that has one-third of its assets in financials. The portfolio managers seek unloved companies with strong cash flows and solid balance sheets. Lately they have been finding insurance companies that sell for less than their historical values. One holding is Markel ( NOK), a property/casualty insurer. The company specializes in a range of niches, providing coverage for ambulances, ocean cargo, and day-care centers. FAM portfolio manager John Fox says that Markel has typically traded for between 1.1 and 1.5 times book value.
At the moment the stock is near the bottom of the range. The company recently made an acquisition that should eventually boost the stock, says Fox. "This will increase the earnings power and the returns on equity," he says. Another holding is White Mountains Insurance ( WTM). The stock sells for a bit less than book value. The company provides specialty insurance and reinsurance, which is coverage for other insurers. At the time of publication, Luxenberg held no positions in securities mentioned.Follow @StanLuxenbergThis article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.