Why These 5 Regional Bank Stocks Are Ready to Take Off

The S&P 500's 9% pullback since January has exposed weaknesses in many stocks - stocks that are best to avoid. But it has also created an opportunity for investors to grab solid companies at prices that definitely won't last.

One of the best places to look for those bargains is the regional banking sector.

Thanks to three major industry tailwinds, this sector has been outperforming the rest of the market in 2018. While the S&P 500 is down 1.7% this year, regional banks are up 1.6%.

The smart money is already heading into these stocks. And there's every reason to believe they are on the verge of a breakout...

3 Big Reasons Regional Banks Will Lead the Sector Higher

First, banks stocks are among the few that benefit from a rising interest rate environment like we're in now.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has signaled it will raise rates at least three, possibly four, times this year. This means banks will be able to charge more on loans and increase their profit margins.

Average 30-year mortgage rates have risen from 3.75% to 4.45% since late 2015, and another round of hikes by the Fed could bring that figure to 5.25% or higher.

The second catalyst for bank profits is the recent federal tax overhaul.

This particularly benefits regional banks. It simultaneously slows loan demand from big conglomerates - they're busy repatriating their money from overseas - and spurs loan demand from small- and medium-sized businesses.

Finally, changes in federal finance regulation should improve regional banks' bottom line.

A rare piece of bipartisan-supported legislation that has cleared the Senate aims to loosen restrictions on mortgage lending for small banks. It will also exempt more regional banks from the strict federal oversight originally intended for big Wall Street banks after the disaster of 2008.

With that in mind, we've got five regional banks that are among the best of the best. Some of them go back to the 1800s and have weathered bank panics and the Great Depression. Others are surprising young upstarts.

All of them are growing their earnings year after year. Plus, they all offer dividend yields above 1.50%.

And each of them have earned the highest possible score on our Money Morning Stock VQScore™ system, indicating they are undervalued and poised for growth.

Plus, none of these have reported Q1 earnings yet. Any significant earnings beats could serve as a fourth major catalyst.

Here are the top five regional bank stocks ready to take off.

Top Regional Bank Stocks, No. 5: Community Bank System Inc.

Community Bank System Inc. (NYSE: CBU) owns over 170 bank branches in Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Massachusetts. It's been around for over 150 years, beginning with the St. Lawrence County National Bank chartered in 1866 in Canton, N.Y.

With a market cap of $2.7 billion and $11 billion in assets, CBU is the smallest firm on our list. But its earnings have grown every year since 2012, including 19.1% in 2017.

Community Bank's profit margins are an impressive 29.72%, compared to an industry average 25%. The company's return on equity, at 10.64%, as well as its trailing P/E ratio of 17.65, also outperform the industry averages of 8.73% and 23.15 respectively.

The stock has been range-bound over the last 12 months, moving back and forth between $49 and $59. It now sits just above $53. And if the company's P/E rose to match the industry's P/E ratio, the CBU stock price would climb over 30%. So when the stock market picks up again, CBU's solid financials and industry tailwinds should give it a significant boost.

On top of that, you can collect a dividend yield of 2.50%.

CBU will release its quarterly earnings report on April 25. Analysts are predicting earnings per share (EPS) of $0.73, up from $0.64 in the same quarter last year.

Top Regional Bank Stocks, No. 4: Bank of the Ozarks Inc.

Bank of the Ozarks Inc. (Nasdaq: OZRK) began in 1903 with a community bank in Jasper, Ark. Now headquartered in Little Rock, the company operates more than 255 locations in the southeast, as well as in California, Texas, and New York.

Because of its expanding footprint, plans are underway to rebrand the company as "Bank OZK" (with the updated ticker symbol OZK).

CEO George Gleason was only 25 years old and had only $10,000 to his name when he bought a controlling share in the struggling bank in 1979. He then took it from $28 million in assets to $3.2 billion over the next 30 years.

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Gleason's company became the largest bank in Arkansas after the 2008 financial crisis, as its unwavering track record of profitability put it in a position to be a buyer rather than a seller.

Today, OZRK has $20.8 billion in assets, and its profitability remains consistent. According to FactSet, the company is projected to grow its earnings by 25% in 2018.

The stock has slipped from its mid-March high of $53, now around $46. But it has offered steady gains to long-term stockholders, rising 125% over the last five years.

The forward P/E ratio of 11.25 falls well below the industry average of 16.87, suggesting Wall Street is undervaluing the stock. A rise up to the industry average would mean nearly a 50% boost in stock price.

OZRK also offers a dividend yield of 1.61%.

The company will release its quarterly earnings report on April 12. Analysts anticipate earnings of $0.88 per share, up from $0.73 a year ago.

Now, here are our top three regional bank stocks for 2018...

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Top Regional Bank Stocks, No. 3: BankUnited Inc.

BankUnited Inc. (Nasdaq: BKU) is the new kid on the block of our regional bank picks, founded in 2009. But it already holds over $30 billion in assets among its 87 banking centers.

BKU is headquartered in Miami Lakes, Fla., and most of its banking branches are in Florida, though it also operates six in the New York metro area.

This young company brings exceptional performance to its shareholders. Over the last five years, net revenue has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 14%. Its EPS grew 26% from 2016 to 2017. That doesn't count one-time tax benefits, which pushed earnings up even higher in the last quarter. Analysts project a 20.4% rise in EPS this year, according to FactSet.

Like most stocks, BankUnited shares have fallen in the last few weeks, down to about $39 from $43 in mid-March. But it now has an extremely low trailing P/E ratio of 7.16, compared to an industry average of 23.15. Its forward P/E ratio of 12.52 is also well below the industry average. If the stock price rose to meet that average, it would be a 34.7% gain.

You can get BKU before it heads higher and grab a dividend yield of 1.98% too.

The company will release its quarterly earnings report on April 24. Analysts expect EPS of $0.72, which would be a 26% rise from a year earlier.

Top Regional Bank Stocks, No. 2: BancorpSouth Inc.

BancorpSouth Inc. (NYSE: BXS) began inside a hardware store in Verona, Miss., in 1876. It eventually expanded its operations to become known as the Bank of Mississippi.

Though still headquartered in Tupelo, the company's new name reflects its considerably wider reach. BancorpSouth employs nearly 4,000 people managing $15 billion in assets in branches that traverse most of the South and as far north as Illinois.

That growth has made its way into the company's balance sheet, as well. BXS has increased its EPS in each of the last seven years, multiplying fivefold during that span. Analysts project an EPS increase of 30% in 2018.

The stock rose from $31.35 in early January to $35.20 at the end of the month. It has since lost those gains in the market turmoil that has followed. But its consistent, strong performance - the stock is up 97% in the last five years - plus its earnings growth and industry tailwinds suggest it will outperform the market going forward.

As with regional bank stocks in general, BancorpSouth is where the "smart money" is headed now. A number of institutional investors, including Two Sigma Securities LLC, Crossmark Global Holdings Inc., Principal Financial Group Inc., and BNP Paribas Arbitrage SA, have bought large positions or increased their holdings in BXS over the last several months.

BancorpSouth offers a dividend yield of 1.76%.

The company will release its quarterly earnings report on April 18. Analysts project earnings at $0.52 per share, up from $0.39 a year earlier.

Top Regional Bank Stocks, No. 1: KeyCorp

KeyCorp (NYSE: KEY) is the oldest and biggest bank on our list. Now headquartered in Cleveland, the original KeyBank was founded 193 years ago in Albany, N.Y.

Since merging with Society Corp. in 1994, the company has grown to 1,217 branches managing over $135 billion in assets across much of the northern United States from New England to Alaska.

Now part of the Fortune 500, KeyCorp is still growing at a rapid clip. EPS has risen in each of the last five years and is projected to rise 24% this year, from 1.36 to 1.68.

According to Barchart Solutions, 13 out of 18 analysts rate KeyCorp as a "Buy," and 11 of them call it a "Strong Buy."

The average one-year price target for KEY is $23.46, which would represent nearly a 20% gain over today's price. The stock is up 94% in the last five years.

But those projections may be too conservative...

Its trailing P/E ratio of 17.45 and forward P/E ratio of 10.62 are both substantially better than the industry average. If KEY's forward P/E ratio rose to the industry average, it would translate to a 58.8% gain in share price.

KeyCorp offers a dividend yield of 2.10%. The company has raised its dividend for four straight years, so this is one of the more reliable income-producing stocks out there.

KEY will release its quarterly earnings report on April 19. EPS is expected to come in at $0.38, up from $0.32 a year earlier.

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About the Author

Stephen Mack has been writing about economics and finance since 2011. He contributed material for the best-selling books Aftershock and The Aftershock Investor. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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