Special Report

The Seven Safest Banks in America for 2013

The U.S. banking sector is looking better in 2013 than it did in 2012, 2011 and so on. Balance sheets, credit metrics and underlying asset values continue to recover. Still, the recession was not that long ago and economic growth has hit serious headwinds. The public needs to be vigilant about financial risk ahead of another round of major U.S. bank stress tests. Regulators will soon decide which of the large American banks will be permitted to return more capital to their shareholders via higher dividends and stock buybacks. 24/7 Wall St. has recalibrated its list of the seven safest banks in America for 2013 and beyond.

Several banks were very close to meeting all of our financial, historic and transformative criteria, and they may be eligible for the list of safest banks in 2014, or even after the stress tests and after decisions have been formalized over returning capital to shareholders. Some of the data may seem investor oriented, but the reality is that institutional depositors, creditors and trading partners generally evaluate peers with many of the same metrics. The global economic recovery has lost some steam at the same time that the stock market has recovered. The public needs to know which of the larger banks are safe, regardless whether the economy stabilizes or worsens again.

The criteria to be among the safest banks has to be very strict by nature. It also has to apply to the larger institutions, which are either money-center banks or have multiple-state geographies. To make the list, a bank either had to have a minimum of 100 branches or it had to have retail branches in multiple states as the base level for relevance and importance. We used banks with a minimum market capitalization of $3 billion and a minimum asset base of $20 billion. These safest banks had to have the bulk of their image tied to retail and commercial banking operations with many branch offices (probably eliminate, we said above). This eliminated the great fiduciary banks such as State Street Corp. (NYSE: STT) and Bank of New York Mellon Corp. (NYSE: BK), even though they certainly would be considered among the safest banks. It also eliminated the bank holding companies with no retail banking operations, such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS).

24/7 Wall St. took a “Made in America” approach as well, and we screened out U.S. banking outfits that are actually subsidiaries of foreign banks. We also screened out the banks that were still in the process of making large, game-changing or transformative acquisitions, which are too difficult to evaluate in order to avoid absorbing any hidden or unknown risks.

With credit ratings becoming a risk again after a U.K. sovereign downgrade, and on the heels of the fiscal cliff and spending sequestration, all these banks also had to be considered investment grade by the major credit ratings agencies. A minimum hurdle of a 7.0% return on equity had to be seen, and we included the return on assets in this analysis as well. These safest banks had to have a minimum divided yield of 2.0% for their common stockholders, as proof that management believes that it can continue returning capital to shareholders through good and bad times, while still maintaining normal operations.

We screened out the nondiversified banks to avoid too many fluctuations throughout the business cycles. For an investment angle, we also gave preference to the banks where Wall St. analysts have a consensus price target above the current share price, indicating that some underlying value potentially remains. If a bank’s common stock was less than $10.00 per share, it had to have its metrics well above average among the largest banks.

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While Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) was the best performing of the 30 Dow Jones Industrial Average stocks in 2012, it and the money-center banking giant Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) actually do not qualify to be in the safest banks in America, even though the reality is that these banks are almost certain to survive another recession. The Federal Reserve deems them to still be problem banks, and they have so far not been freed up to raise their dividends or to increase share buybacks. That may change ahead, and the reality is that these banks are believed to be strong enough to weather most negative scenarios under the impending stress tests.

Finally, we eliminated banks that we did not feel would survive another recession. Consumers have to keep their money somewhere other than under their mattresses. Having an extremely safe bank to protect your hard-earned cash, nest-eggs and safety deposit boxes in hard times is much more important than how high of a rate depositors can get on certificates of deposit and in their checking and savings accounts. As far as quality is concerned, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) has large stakes in three of the seven safest banks.

In mid-2012, banking regulators proposed to incorporate Basel III capital changes for substantially all U.S. banking organizations. Our list of safest banks shows the Tier-1 ratio today as well as the company’s projected Tier-1 ratio under the proposed rules. This also helps to eliminate any problems over safety and vulnerability ahead. If Basel III is finally adopted as proposed, the threshold for the Tier 1 common equity ratio will be 7%, consisting of a minimum level plus a capital conservation buffer.

Based on the analysis, we anticipate that future lists of the safest banks in America may include 10 or even 12 banks, rather than seven, because many banks only missed one criteria yet exceeded other hurdles handily. We still are not evaluating the community or single-region banks due to size or single geography risks. That being said, many of those community banks have better ratios than any of the larger safest banks in America.

This is the 24/7 Wall St. list of the seven safest banks in America for 2013 to deposit money into, ranked in order of safety, size by assets, and reach.  Our rank is based on financial stability, size by assets, and by reach.

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