Lehman haunts banks cheapest to S&P 500 even as shares surge

For all the efforts to regulate banks since Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed, stock investors have no more faith in U.S. financial institutions now than they did in early 2008, relative to the rest of the market.

While the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (CME:SPU13) trades at a level that’s 16.2 times reported operating earnings, up 11% from this time last year, banks, brokers and insurers are at 13.2 times profits, the cheapest among 10 American industries, according to data on average valuations this month compiled by Bloomberg. Even after financial shares tripled in the four-year bull market, the gap between their valuations and the S&P 500 is as wide as in early 2008.

Tighter regulation and reduced risks have failed to restore confidence that bank profits will be worth paying more for, even as analysts project earnings at financial firms will expand three times more than the S&P 500 this year. Bulls say low valuations mean there’s room for financial shares to beat the benchmark equity index as the economy accelerates. Bears say new rules will prevent American banks from returning to their record share-price highs.

“The crisis is certainly something that still troubles investors,” John Carey, a fund manager at Boston-based Pioneer Investment Management Inc., which manages about $200 billion, said in a Sept. 10 phone interview. “It’s 2013 and we’re talking about things that happened in the middle of the 2000s. As investors, we’re still a bit concerned about the fallout from all of that, which hasn’t been completely put to rest.”

Worst Performance

Analysts say earnings at banks will increase 15%, compared to 3.2% for the rest of the market, according to more than 11,000 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. While the index surpassed its pre-crisis record this year, financial shares remain 47% below the high in February 2007, more than any other industry.

Shares of telecommunication and consumer discretionary companies are the most expensive in the S&P 500, trading at more than 21 times reported earnings last week. Consumer stocks have rallied the most since their pre-crisis highs, rising at least 36% above those records, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The S&P 500 rose 2% to 1,687.99 last week as China’s economy showed signs of improvement and mergers increased optimism in the U.S. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. rallied 4.7% (NYSE:GS), helping financial shares gain 1.9%, after S&P Dow Jones said the fifth-biggest U.S. bank by assets will be added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

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