Tag Archives: Handelsbanken

Book review: “A Blueprint for Better Banking: Svenska Handelsbanken and a proven model for post-crash banking “


The author of the book is Nils Kröner, a German who among others worked as consultant at McKinsey, at Barclays and for AKO capital before he became professor.

The book has been written following the big financial crisis and starts with a review about what went wrong in general.

Then he introduces the “7 deadly sins of banking” that contributed in his opinion to the banking crisis which are:

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Handelsbanken Update & Annual Report 2016 -(almost) on track

Already a couple of weeks ago, Handelsbanken issued their 2016 annual report. On the surface, the numbers look like a small disappointment with flat profit and a slight decrease in EPS.

Behind the surface however, some things happened. The CEO was fired in 2016 for “too much centralization”.

Some highlights of the annual report from my side:

  • the number of branches in Sweden went down from 474 to 435
  • the 4th quarter was very weak, but most likely driven by cost for branch closures in Sweden which happened in Q4. I liked this comment:

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Greenlight Re (sell), Handelsbanken (buy) & Bill Ackman

Greenlight Re

Following the E.On discussion, I really asked myself if it was such a good idea to invest into Greenlight Re.

My argument was as follows:

  • the stock looks historically cheap
  • Einhorn had a few very bad years
  • based on its track record hw might do much better in the future

After the E.On discussion however, I recognized the follwoing: Whenever I looked at a stock that Einhorn bought (Delta Lloyd, AerCap, SunEdison, Consol, E.on), I never understood why he did it or I thought it was not a good idea. Even if I look at his 20 bigest disclosed positions, I don’t find any stock that I would buy on my own:


That in effect lead me to the conclusion that I am most likely the wrong kind of shareholder for Greenlight Re. If things go really  bad, I am not sure if I would have enough trust to keep the position or if I would get really nervous because I could not identify with the manager.

Secondly, I honestly don’t have much insight, how Einhorn generated his fantastic past track record.

Together with not liking his long position, I think it was a mistake to invest in Greenlight and I sold my stocks as mentioned in the comments at around 18,45 USD per share with a tiny profit of around +2,5%.

It could well be that Greenlight maybe has a spectacular 2016 but as I have mentioned above, one should not allocate money to someone where you don’t understand what that manager is doing. Conviction is important to withstand all kind of behavioural traps in investing.

Finally, I am not sure if there could be some isues on the Reinsurance side. AIG surpisingly disclosed a pretty massive reserve strengtening for Q4 and it looks like that this is mostly “long tail” exposure from long ago which is also the “bread and butter” business of Greenlight Re.


Following the market turmoil, I began to establish a first (2%) position in Handelsbanken. Purchase price was on average ~98 SEK per share. Valuation wise they are now at a level where I would expect to earn around 16-17% p.a. long term which looks atractive to me despite potential short term head winds.

I plan to increase this to a full position over the next months. I funded this position by selling some of the HT1 bonds, as I want to keep some cash (~10%) in order to be flexible if some of my watch list shares become really cheap.

Bill Ackman

Bill Ackman came out with his Q4 letter to investors just a few days ago. His results were similarily bad than Einhorn’s with -20,5% after fees for 2015.

There was already good coverage on his letter for instance from Matt Levine.

My 2 cents on this:

  • compared to Einhorn, he mostly blames others for his losses (index funds, copycats, the market)
  • he doesn’t seem to fully understand how index funds work
  • funnily enough, he accuses index funds that their only goal is to “attract more funds” at low costs. Why did Ackman then create the public vehicle Pershing Square Holdings ? Well, he also wants to attract more fund but a high costs.
  • he thinks that there are not enough activists. Understandable from an activist perspective. Subjectively I have the feeling that Carl Icahn alone is activist at every single stock in the US.
  • at least he admits that “platform” companies like Valeant are not such fantastic cases per se.

On a personal level, I do think there might be already TOO MANY activists. Many of them only care for short term payouts which, in many cases, might not be benefitial for long term share holders.

All in all, if I would have money invested with Ackman, I would really ask myself if I would trust a guy who only blames others for his misfortunes.






Banking update: Handelsbanken, Lloyds Banking & Gronlandsbanken (sale)

Although I usually don’t care that much about quarterly earnings, let’s start with two interesting ones:


Handelsbanken is on my watch list, I consider them as one of the best bank franchises globally but still a little bit too expensive. Officially, “Mr. Market” was disappointed because earnings were below expectations. The stock dropped around 8% on that day:

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Lloyds Banking Group (ISIN GB0008706128) – A potential interesting special situation within UK Banking (part 1) ?

Quick “Management summary”:

Within the large UK banking peers, only Lloyds banking Group offers a “pure play” Uk opportunity. There are a lot of negatives around UK banking in general and Lloyds specifically, but overall nothing which would “kill” the investment at this stage. Potentially, the current selling of the UK government and the visible turn around could present an attractive entry point for a turn around situation with kind of “catalyst” if Government at some point is finished and profit increases ex fines.

Following my Aldermore post a few days ago, I decided to have a closer look into the listed UK banks as the UK market looks structurally more interesting than most European ones. Overall valuations are pretty moderate. This is a table based on the most recent financial year:


Name P/B P/TB Leverage NIM Pers. Exp P/E
HSBC HOLDINGS PLC 0,88 1,03 13,17 2,08% 33,25% 12,5
BARCLAYS PLC 0,77 0,90 22,03 0,00% 43,52% #N/A N/A
ROYAL BANK OF SCOTLAND GROUP 0,71 0,82 17,46 1,83% 38,00% 101,2
STANDARD CHARTERED PLC 0,90 1,01 15,53 2,15% 37,02% 16,5
LLOYDS BANKING GROUP PLC 1,19 1,30 17,13 1,33% 28,40% 51,7

Looking at the list of banks, lets look quickly at the different players.


HSBC is by far the biggest player with the clear target to be one of the biggest players globaly, offering all services from investment banking to private banking, etc. Their UK business is a rather small part of the company, the biggest part of the business comes from Asia. Historically, HSBC has always been trading at least at 2x book value. The company has been involved in many scandals, the problems of the Swiss subsidiary and the secret bank account of the CEO are only the latest example. Overall, HSBC is much more a play on Asia than anything else.

2. Barclays

Barclay’s is in its core an investment bank with some retail businesses attached. They took over large parts of Lehman following the financial crisis. Barclay’s has significant revenues from card processing and African operations. As with HSBC, UK retail is not their main focus.

3. Royal Bank of Scotland

The creation of “Fred the Shred”, had to be bailed out by the British Government in 2008. The Government still owns more than 60%. Among others, RBS is obliged to dispose US subsidiary Citizen’s which I own as a “special situation”. RBS is (still) a full service bank, including investment banking and wealth management. RBS is still in the middle of restructurings, for instance just a few days ago they announced to drastically shrink Non-UK investment banking.

4. Standard Chartered

Although Standard Charteres is UK listed, it basically does not do any business in the UK. It is an international commercial bank active mostly in Asia and Africa. The CEO has been recently replaced and the share price has recovered. Historically, as HSBC, Standard Chartered used to trade at much higher mutiples.

5. Lloyds Banking Group

After the disastrous HBOS acquisition in 2008, Lloyds had to be bailed out by the British government. the Government still owns 23% and is in the process of selling down. As part of the reorganization, Lloyd’s IPOed TSB and scaled back the international business. Lloyd’s is an almost “pure play” UK bank with the largest share in UK business of all the players. After the spin-off of TSB, they still have on average ~20% market share which to my knowledge is pretty unique for a private bank in a Western country.

So LLoyd’s in principle is the only interesting “play” to invest into UK banking. But is it worth the effort to dig deeper ?

As always, the first step is: Try to kill the investment case

This is the list I came up with after reading the 2014 annual report plus some “well known facts” about banks:

1. Lloyds had to pay massive fines, among others for misselling PPI insurance, Libor fixing etc and there is more to come
2. The UK Government still owns ~23% and is selling
3. Uk banking is very unpopular in the public’s mind which is bad for business
4. UK bank levy has been extended
5. 3 officers get 21 mn in 2014 despite tiny profit, bonus for”underlying profit”
6. huge pension plan (funded, derisked)
7. UK housing is overheated
8. In the next financial crisis, all banks will crash again
9. Valuation is high compared to “peers”
10. They only pay a tiny dividend
11. Risk of UK election outcome and UK exit
12. The banking business model is dead

1. Fines/PPI

This is a quote form the annual report:

The Group increased the provision for expected PPI costs by a further £700 million in the fourth quarter. This brings the amount provided in 2014 to £2,200 million (2013: £3,050 million), and the total amount provided to £12,025 million. Total costs incurred in the fourth quarter were £700 million and as at 31 December 2014, £2,549 million or 21 per cent of the total provision, remained unutilised.

So they do have still a 2 bn GBP provision for additional claims. Overall, the PPI episode was clearly a major issue for them. But on the other hand, there is some reason to believe that we have seen the peak. I am no expert in this, but if the provision would be enough, we could see rapidly increasing earnings over the next 1-3 years. Reading through the annual report, it looks like that they should not expect any US fines and also most FX/Libor related fines should be closed. But there clearly remains a risk.

2. Government stake / selling

In December, the UK Government decided to “dribble” the stocks into the market and against a one time big sale. A few days ago they released that they had sold 1% down. This constant selling is of course not good for the shareprice. The “break even” for the Government seems to be 73,6 pence, so one could expect that they are constantly in the market for the time being. This is clearly bad for traders but not necessarily for long term investors.

Looking at the chart, it seems that there is a “lid on the price” at around 80 pence since more than a year:

Forced sellers or in this case sellers who don’t want to maximise their long term return are often moving prices into “non-effecient” areas. As we value investors know, price is not equal value. So the classic “share overhang we have here might be a reason to actually look deeper into the value of the stock as there is a good chance that without those sales, the share price could be higher.

3. Bad reputation

Banking in general and UK banks in particular are maybe one of the most hated companies at the moment. As I have written, many small players try to take advantage of this like Aldermore, Handelsbanken or Virgin Money. Plus, the UK banks lose most law suits as judges mostly side with the plaintifs. The question clearly is if this will hurt the big players all over and long term or if there will be winners and losers for the big players. My personal opinion is that LLoyds as a focused UK player is in a better position to turn around the image than for instance RBS, HSBC or Barclays who have other problems to solve. I will look at this later but in my opinion the main victims will be the “weaker” players, not Lloyds Bank.

Bad reputation on the other side can be interesting for an investor. When no one wants to touch a stock, it is usually more likely a value investment than if everyone is talking on cocktail parties on how great a company does.

4. UK Bank levy

As a direct result of the bad reputation, the UK government had introduced a bank tax (“levy”) as a percentage point of the full balance sheet after the financial crisis. Currently it is ~0,21% for the whole balance sheet amount, a very significant expense especially for banks which have a lot of non-Uk business (Standard Chartered, HSBC). There is clearly a risk that a socialist UK Government will keep or even increase the tax. On the other hand, corporate taxes in the uk went down a lot which kind of off sets this issue compared to non-UK peers.

5. Large bonuses 2014

Especially the CEO, Antonio Horta-Osorio made around 11 mn GBP in 2014 which caused some uproar in the UK press. However most of that was a result of a 3 year plan which vested this year. On the other hand, he turned down a bonus of 2 mn in 2012 and received most of his bonus in stocks which he pledged not to sell until the government is out. As management plays a big role at banks, I will need to look deeper into the CEO at a later stage. Comapring older annual rpeorts, they have dropped their initial target from 2012 to earn 12-15% ROE in the long term.

6. Large pension plan

To be honest, Lloyd’s pension plan is not only huge but GIGANTIC. The current DBO liability is 38 bn GBP not much less than the total core equity position. The bad news: The discount rate the use with 3,67% is pretty high, on the other hand, they have derisked the plan early. of the 38 bn assets, only 5 bn are equity. Additionally, they seemed to have actively closed a large part of the interest rate risk in 2014. This is the statement from the annual report:

The asset‑liability matching strategy currently mitigates approximately 89 per cent (2013: 54 per cent) of the interest rate volatility and 94 per cent (2013: 71 per cent) of the inflation rate volatility of the liabilities.

This was very fortunate or clever timing and might have spared them a couple of billions over the last few months. For pension plans, this is clearly best in class with regard to ALM. Nevertheless a big pension plan like this will eat up a lot of capital and risk bearing capacity for the company and is clearly a big negative factor.

7. UK housing is overheated

I am not an expert in UK housing, but my assumption is that they are better prepared than last time.

8. In the next financial crisis, all banks will crash again

As I have mentioned before, I do think the banking sector overall is much more stable than in 2007. the next crisis will come from somewhere else and the major victims will be other players.

9. Valuation is high compared to “peers”

Yes, at first sight it looks expensive, but in my opinion, Lloyds is already 1-2 years ahead compared for instance with RBS. The have cleaned up the organization and the portfolio

10. They only pay a tiny dividend

Compared to the 6% of HSBC, Lloyd’s tiny dividend looks ridiculous. However this could change quickly and Lloyds could become interesting for dividend investors.

11. Risk of UK election outcome and UK exit

Valid concern, however I tend to ignore such macro stuff. Rather I think it could be an additional explanation for a low valuation.

12. The banking business model is dead

Nope, I do think the “traditional” banking model is here to stay, at least for the banks who do it right.


Overall, I would not “kill” the Llyods investment case at this stage. The biggest issue for me is the gargantuan pension plan. Although it seems to be well-managed, it is still HUGE. In a next step, I will need to come up with a valuation or some idea about potential returns for Lloyds and have a closelook at management.

As a side remark: I do see that someone like Handelsbanken could capture market share, especially from guys like RBS or Barclays. A funny side note: Handelsbanken doesn’t even appear as competitor for Lloyds in their 2014 strategy update

A deeper look into Svenska Handelsbanken (With a little help from Warren Buffett)

This is the follow up post on my first post where I compared Handelsbanken to Deutsche Bank.

Whenever I start to look at a company more seriously, I do a quick Pro/con list, starting with the Cons first in order to cool down my desire to quickly buy a stock:


1. It’s a bank
2. Avg P/E over the last 15 years has been ~11 compared to 17 now (so historically expensive)
3. current P/B at 2,0 is higher than 15 Year average (1,7)
4. current price/tangible book at 2,2 vs. 15 year average at 1,95
5. Almost 100% more expensive (P/B) than most European banks
6. high exposure to potentially “frothy” Nordic real estate markets
7. significant amount of capital market funding (deposit to loan ratio clearly below 0)
8. past performance also due to "Luck" of not being active in Southern Europe, many Nordic banks look good, especially Swedish banks
9. threat of continued technological change (online banking, peer-to-peer lending, etc.)
10. analysts are extremely negative, significantly below all peers (on Bloomberg, from 33 analysts, only 1 has a buy, 16 holds, 16 sells). Handelsbanken is Number 600 of analyst consensus in the Stoxx 600.
11. we are current in a frothy stock market environment and the stock chart looks aggressive

Let’s look into more detail into these issues.

Re 1: It’s a bank

Many value investors stay away from banks, mostly due to the 2008/2009 crisis where former highly regarded banks (Lehman, Bear Stearns;WaMu, Countrywide) basically disappeared over night. On the other hand, Warren Buffett’s single biggest stock investment is a bank, Wells Fargo at around 27 bn USD for their ~10% plus stake.

One of the great things about Buffett is that he usually explains what he does. Wells Fargo is not different. He actually explains it in his 1990 annual report.

He starts explaining why they don’t like banks in general:

The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity – a common ratio in this industry – mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from a managerial failing that we described last year when discussing the “institutional imperative:” the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so. In their lending, many bankers played follow-the-leader with lemming-like zeal; now they are experiencing a lemming-like fate.

Because leverage of 20:1 magnifies the effects of managerial strengths and weaknesses, we have no interest in purchasing shares of a poorly managed bank at a “cheap” price. Instead, our only interest is in buying into well-managed banks at fair prices.

So this is pretty clear statement from Buffett: If you buy a bank, buy a good one.

Let’s look at the next paragraph:

With Wells Fargo, we think we have obtained the best managers in the business, Carl Reichardt and Paul Hazen. In many ways the combination of Carl and Paul reminds me of another – Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at Capital Cities/ABC. First, each pair is stronger than the sum of its parts because each partner understands, trusts and admires the other. Second, both managerial teams pay able people well, but abhor having a bigger head count than is needed. Third, both attack costs as vigorously when profits are at record levels as when they are under pressure. Finally, both stick with what they understand and let their abilities, not their egos, determine what they attempt. (Thomas J. Watson Sr. of IBM followed the same rule: “I’m no genius,” he said. “I’m smart in spots – but I stay around those spots.”)

He clearly invested in the people running the bank. That somehow contradicts other statements from him where he claims only to invest in businesses which could be run by idiots. Anyway, the second learning is: Buy good banks with good management..

Let’s look next, why and when he bought:

Our purchases of Wells Fargo in 1990 were helped by a chaotic market in bank stocks. The disarray was appropriate: Month by month the foolish loan decisions of once well-regarded banks were put on public display. As one huge loss after another was unveiled – often on the heels of managerial assurances that all was well – investors understandably concluded that no bank’s numbers were to be trusted. Aided by their flight from bank stocks, we purchased our 10% interest in Wells Fargo for $290 million, less than five times after-tax earnings, and less than three times pre-tax earnings.

As we have seen the 2008/2009 financial crisis, Buffett seems to like buying banks especially in crisis situations where they sell really really cheap. This somehow also contradicts the first paragraph. Clearly Buffett prefers to buy cheap if he has the chance.

In the following part, we can clearly see how far Buffett’s thinking went those days:

Of course, ownership of a bank – or about any other business – is far from riskless. California banks face the specific risk of a major earthquake, which might wreak enough havoc on borrowers to in turn destroy the banks lending to them. A second risk is systemic – the possibility of a business contraction or financial panic so severe that it would endanger almost every highly leveraged institution, no matter how intelligently run. Finally, the market’s major fear of the moment is that West Coast real estate values will tumble because of overbuilding and deliver huge losses to banks that have financed the expansion. Because it is a leading real estate lender, Wells Fargo is thought to be particularly vulnerable.

Interestingly, real estate prices look expensive in 1990, even before the big 20 year boom. He then gives us a hint how he actually puts numbers on risk:

Consider some mathematics: Wells Fargo currently earns well over $1 billion pre-tax annually after expensing more than $300 million for loan losses. If 10% of all $48 billion of the bank’s loans – not just its real estate loans – were hit by problems in 1991, and these produced losses (including foregone interest) averaging 30% of principal, the company would roughly break even.

In any case this did not deter him from buying Wells Fargo and they have been a great investment for him. Just for fun, I checked out the performance of Wells Fargo since 01.01.1990. Including dividends, Wells fargo made 15,6% p.a. since then, that is even 2% p.a. better than Berkshire returned for its shareholders in the same time period !!!!

Re 2: Avg P/E over the last 15 years has been ~11 compared to 17 now (so historically expensive)

This is clearly an issue. As we have seen above, buying banks at distressed prices is much more fun. One counter argument is that current margins at Handelsbanken are also below their historical means. If you assume mean reversion for instance to the 10 year average net income margin, than this would lead to an overall average valuation level. So no reason to worry here but it is clearly not a bargain either. On the other hand, Wells fargo for instance would have been a great investment for Buffett in any case as long-term for such a great company the entrance point has less relevance.

Re 3. current P/B at 2,0 is higher than 15 Year average (1,7)
Re 4. current price/tangible book at 2,2 vs. 15 year average at 1,95

Similar to 2, both measures look expensive compared to the past. “Normalized” the look better but clearly not a bargain.

Re 5. Almost 100% more expensive (P/B) than most European banks

This doesn’t worry me much. As Buffett mentioned, you should buy “good banks” not weak banks below book value.

Re 6. high exposure to potentially “frothy” Nordic real estate markets

Here we can use Buffett’s sample calculation:

At the end of 2014, Svenska had around 1.114.000 mn SEK property loans. If we assume 10% of them defaulting with a loss of 30%, we would end up with an expected loss of ~ 33.000 mn SEK. Compared to the net income of 15.000 SEK for Handelsbanken in 2014, this would mean a loss 2 times their annual profit. Not as comfortable as Wells Fargo back then, but US Banks in general have higher margins. On the other hand, there are no “no recourse” loans in Scandinavia, so one could assume that the stress scenario might be lower.

Re 7. significant amount of capital market funding (deposit to loan ratio clearly below 0)

The dependence on capital market funding was the major problem for banks in the 2007/2008 crisis. Now however, the situation has turned. With negative rates, many deposit rich banks have huge problems because you can’t really charge your retail customers for deposits (yet) but you “earn” negative rates on excess deposits. For Handelsbanken, this is much easier because they don’t have a lot of excess cash on the balance sheet. So in the current environment, this is actually an advantage.

Ee 8. past performance also due to "Luck" of not being active in Southern Europe, many Nordic banks look good, especially Swedish banks

That is absolutely true, however Handelsbanken long-term ROEs etc. are the best even within this Group.

Re 9. threat of continued technological change (online banking, peer-to-peer lending, etc.)

This is a very interesting aspect. Many banks here in Germany are closing branch after branch, whereas Handelsbanken aggressively expands by opening new branches. Their focus on branch banking is clearly counter cyclical and I am not sure how this will work out long-term. I do think that there will be continued demand for “In person” bank services but I have no idea to what extend.

Re 10. analysts are extremely negative, significantly below all peers (on Bloomberg, from 33 analysts, only 1 has a buy, 16 holds, 16 sells). Handelsbanken is Number 600 of analyst consensus in the Stoxx 600.

This is actually a big plus from my side. I own other stocks (Admiral, TGS) which score equally poorly in analyst’s ratings. In my personal opinion, analysts mostly run their ratings on a top down approach. They start with the sector and if they don’t like the sector, most companies within that sector will get bad ratings. Very often in a next step they then rank companies badly which look “expensive” compared to similar companies. They almost never look a more specific aspects. A relatively expensive company like Admiral in a tough sector will get a bad rating, non withstanding any long-term significant competitive advantages etc.

For me, badly rated companies in tough industries but with long-term competitive advantages are one of the few corners of the markets where I can find value. So this would be a clear plus for Handelsbanken as a potential investment.

Re 11. we are current in a frothy stock market environment and the stock chart looks aggressive

Looking at the chart, it is quite interesting how the stock price accelerated despite the bad analyst ratings:

looking at the shareholders list one can see that US funds seem to like the stock and buy into it, especially Capital Group, T. Rowe Price and others. Skandinavian funds rather seem to be more cautious. Personally, I am also hesitant buying into such a chart, but int theory one should better ignore it as this could be very similar to “Anchoring” a very common behavioural bias.


Looking at the “Cons” which I have identified int he first step, I don’t see a deal breaker against investing. However, the current price level is rather “fair” than cheap. This could be justified if there would be a clear upside with regard to growth and/or growing profitability.

As the post got quite long already, I will look into the upside potential in a separate post which should hopefully follow soon.