The French regional banks – part two (2/2)

I ended the last post (part two 1/2) for the French regional banks analysis with one of my favourite quotes from Charlie Munger:

When you locate a bargain, you must ask, ‘Why me, God? Why am I the only one who could find this barging?

In this final part of the French regional banks analysis I will try to answer the above questions by inverting the last part of it. I will also take a look at the French real-estate and lending market to see if I have missed something in my earlier analysis regarding risk and uncertainty. Finally, I will try to wrap up the value investing story (post two and three) with the risk arbitrage story (post one) into an overall conclusion about the French regional banks as investment candidates. If you stick to the end of this long text you will be rewarded as the final part also includes a new catalyst that I haven’t written about before.

“Invert, always invert”

With the words of Munger borrowed from German mathematician Carl Jacobi: “Invert, always invert”, I will try to answer the last part of the question above. In other words; are there any creditable investor that have a position in the French regional banks?

I started post two with a video where monsieur François Badelon (fund manager at the Amiral Gestion fund Sextant Autour du Monde) laid out his view of the value investing case for the French regional banks. Monsieur Badelon is not alone in his positive attitude towards the French regional banks. Monsieur Louis d’Arvieu, also a fund manager at the Amiral Gestion fund Sextant Grand Large, answered and concluded in an interview in May 2015 (translated with Google)[1]:

The financial services sector was the largest at the end of March (19.8% of invested assets, compared with 11.1% at the end of 2014). How do certain values in this sector have attractive valuations in your eyes?

In this sector, we are present in certain Crédit Agricole regional caisses that we have been loyal to for years. These funds are exposed to the traditional retail banking business, are managed prudently, are inexpensive, poorly tracked, massively over-capitalized and highly discounted compared to their book value. They also pay high dividends and have very strong local market shares.

Although there is a high possibility that the two fund managers from Amiral Gestion are biased by each other’s opinions, I consider the French domestic knowledge of two highly regarded fund managers to be both insightful and trustworthy. There are also three other well-regarded French value focused investment management companies that show up on some of the shareholder lists for the regional banks, HMF finance[2], Moneta Assets Management[3] and Financière Tiepolo[4].

Now that we have established some understanding and conviction regarding the domestic funds view about the French regional banks, what about international funds and investors?

The NYSE listed American investment management company Invesco and their European Small Company fund show up on several of the regional banks shareholder lists[5]. As of November 2016 the regional banks together are the funds second largest holding[6] Also, the Belgian asset management company Value Square NV show up on several of the banks shareholder lists[7]. As of November 2016 the regional banks are Value Squares second largest holding[8]. Last but definitely not least we have Arbiter Partners, a New-York based hedge fund. Behind Arbiter Partners we find Mr Paul Isaac, a famous deep value investor and nephew of the no other than Mr Walter Schloss. If you don’t know who Paul Isaac is I highly recommend reading about him in this fantastic post from Värdebyrån (in Swedish)[9]. In an interview in the Graham & Doddsville newsletter from the spring of 2013 he lays out the value investing case of the French regional banks in detail[10]:

Our second-largest position is more esoteric. It’s in the regional affiliates of Crdit Agricole.”

So there are 13 of these non-voting shares in these various regional banks, which are decent regional banks. They have non- performing assets of 1% to 4% of assets. They usually have loan loss reserves of 70% to 150% of the non- performing assets. The tangible common equity to assets runs 8% to 15% on the outside. The ROE runs in the mid-single digits to about 10%. The efficiency ratios are around 45% to 60%.”

These are not bad regional banks, and as they have assets between $8 and $60 billion apiece, they’re also not tiny, either. You can get information on them if you speak French or can use Google Toolbar. Just go to the website of each of the regional banks. They don’t make it easy for you. You have to go through the site and find the required legal filings, and then they’ll show you the annual and trimestral reports.”

These things are trading at 25%-40% of tangible book, with somewhat depressed earnings this year, partially because of economic conditions in France, partially because of incremental taxes, and partially because of the lack of flow through of any earnings from the holding entity where they take the dividends into their income statement when they pay them.”

These entities are trading at five or six times earnings. They’re paying dividends of five to seven percent. Most of them have buyback programs. There have been buybacks of whole share classes of these entities. When they’ve occurred they’ve been at significant premiums to what these are currently trading for.

We’re getting a nice current income on the position, and there is some accretion to book value. My hope is that these things are not entirely rational for an essentially mutual institution to have outstanding indefinitely, and we may get some buybacks of whole issues. These positions are not terribly easy to buy – they typically trade between twenty thousand and a couple hundred thousand dollars a day each, so accumulating them took a long time.

To summarise and conclude. There seems to exist both a domestic and international conviction that the French regional banks are an interesting value investing case. This is not only evident from the funds mentioned ownership but also from the fact that they all actively engage in the current legal process of stressing the equality between shareholders of the regional banks[11] (i.e. the underlying reason for the risk arbitrage case of the French regional banks presented in post one).

Expanding the area of research

In the Graham & Doddsville interview Mr Isaac answers a question and points to two important areas that should be explored before I wrap this analysis up:

G&D: What is the composition of the assets at the regionals? Is it what we would expect from traditional banks?

PI: Yeah, it’s small commercial, consumer, and municipal loans. The one thing that really concerns me is if interest rates were to go up moderately, it probably would help their profitability. But if interest rates were to go up a lot, there is an inherent duration mismatch because they do some term lending, particularly to municipalities. So I think that is probably the biggest risk if you’re looking for an outlying structural risk.”

The French real-estate and lending market

When I started to get interested in the case of the French regional banks I knew very little of the French banking, real-estate and lending markets. For anyone who feels the same way and wants to acquire some insight into the French banking system I can recommend two papers: The history of banks in France [12] and the ACPR report for 2015[13]. For particular insights into the French regional banking system I can also recommend the following two papers: The French Co-operative Banking Group Model: Too Good to be True? [14] and The challenges of recent changes in French cooperative banking groups[15]. Last, for insights into both the banking and real-estate market in France and Europe I recommend reading the HYPOSTAT 2016 A review of europe’s mortgage and housing markets report.[16] In this part of the report I will use some of the knowledge gained from these reports and try to comment on Mr Isaac point that the regional banks are focused on “small commercial, consumer, and municipal loans” and that there might exist a structural risk related “if interest rates were to go up a lot

Below you will find a picture from loans outstanding for all Caisse Regionale, i.e. the regional banks in the Credit Agricolé Group (39 in total, not only the 13 that are listed on the stock market)[17]:


In the order that they are presented above each loan category represent; 59%, 4%, 20%, 9% and 8% of the total loans outstanding as of September 2016. Although the division of loans outstanding vary between the thirteen Caisse Regionale banks the above table provides a good enough picture for the average “loan structures”, i.e. focus is on home and small businesses loans. A similar conclusion can be made regarding the division of loans outstanding for the entire credit activity in France. Housing loans are the main type of loans (46%), followed by equipment loans (26%) and cash loans (15%)[18].

Before diving into the details and some macroeconomic factors related to the biggest chunk of the loans outstanding, home loans, let’s take a look at two important ratios in relation to the total loans outstanding[19]. Again, the two ratios below (impaired loans ratio and coverage ratio) are based on all 38 Caisse Regionale banks but represent a fair view of the average for the 13 regional banks as well:


Today, the impaired loans ratio for the regional banks is low. In more concrete terms, the low ratio tells us that the regional banks are not currently having any problems with their lenders ability to pay their interest and mortgage. An impaired loans ratio of 2,5% is low both on an absolute and relative level (see comparison with NPL ratio below from EBA Dashboard of 250 European banks). Also, the regional banks have a solid coverage ratio both incl and excl reserves; 103,4 % and 63,8 % respectively. From this aspect the regional banks are well protected from potential and future losses. Again, this is true both on an absolute and relative level (see coverage ratio of NPL below from EBA Dashboard of 250 European banks).


Although the above ratios are solid for the regional banks I would nonetheless like to investigate what the underlying situation for one major part of these ratios. Because 59% of the total loans outstanding is house loans I thought it be a good idea to look at some macroeconomic factors for France in relation to this figure. As I am by no means an “macro expert” I would like you take my analysis in this part with an extra grain of salt.

The French real estate-market

To start of I would go back to a statement made by Mr Paul Isaacs in the Graham & Doddsville newsletter from the spring of 2013:

These are conservatively run regional banks. France didn’t have a gigantic real- estate boom. If you don’t think the French banking system is completely imploding, these are really cheap certificates, and you are paid a fair amount while you wait.”[20]

So let us first examine how the situation has developed since 2013 when the above statement was made. In the HYPOSTAT report of the European mortgage and housing market there are graphs showcasing house price development since 2006. In the graph with countries where house prices were, in 2015, around 2006 levels, we find France[21].


A similar graph but with a longer time frame (from a different source) shows a more volatile price development than the picture above[22].


Regardless of what graph we look at I think it is fair to say that although there has been an increase in house prices since Mr Isaacs statement in 2013 there is still no signs of a “gigantic real- estate boom” in France. Nonetheless, the HYPOSTAT report does the following statement about the current trend: ”Finally, in countries where house prices have been falling in recent years such as Cyprus, France, Greece and Italy, there were signs of deceleration and of an upcoming reversal in trend.[23]

The above quote should also be put in context to another statement made in the HYPOSTAT report regarding the price development of capital cities, Paris in this case: ”In other countries such as France, the Netherlands and also the US, the country-wide HPI has not dramatically changed with respect to 2006, while their capital cities’ prices increased by between 25% and 40%, pointing to very segmented domestic markets in some instances.”[24]

So what about the outlook for the French real estate market then? I came across an article last week that mainly focused on Sweden’s real estate market but also included some information about France. The outlook for the Swedish real estate market was not positive to say the least. However, for France the European Systemic risk board (ESRB) has not issued a similar warning for the vulnerability in its real estate market[25]:


So to summarise and conclude so far. There seems be no sign of a current real estate boom in France in general, although prices are currently in an upwards trend in relation to recent years. The same statement cannot be made for the Paris real estate market where prices have increased far more than the French average. However, putting it all together there seems to be no need to worry about the outlook and stability of the French real-estate market as the ESRB declares no waring for the vulnerability. This final conclusion leads us into the quest of trying to look at other factors that supports this notion.

Real-estate lending and some other important macroeconomic factors

Price development in the real estate market is only one side of the coin that could lead to a vulnerable real estate market. The other and more interesting side, I think, is to look at how residential lending has developed over the years.

So let’s start with one important graph that in my opinion verifies the conclusion drawn by ERSB[26]:


From the above graph there doesn’t seem to be a current residential lending boom in France. More importantly I think the graph should also be viewed in relation to the earlier graph of house price increase in France since 2006 and the conclusion that there are currently no signs of a real estate boom. In other words, France doesn’t seem to have a real estate bubble financed with borrowed money. This is very good news.

Moving on to the next graph. Let’s take a look at the percentage of home owners with mortgage loan in relation to mortgage to disposable income for France and some other European countries[27]:


Again, the above graph doesn’t ring any alarming bells to my novice macroeconomic ears. France in relation to other European countries don’t have a particular high degree of home owners with a mortgage loan (an untapped revenue stream for the regional banks?). Also, the relationship between outstanding mortgage to disposable income for France is not particularly high. In other words, the underlying stability in the real-estate lending market seems to be pretty good. Both in relation to absolute and relative levels.

As I said before, I don’t consider myself a person with in-depth knowledge or analytical skills regarding macroeconomic situations and factors. However, with the presentation above I think it is fair to say that the statement about France having no gigantic real-estate boom made by Paul Isaac is still true. Considering that the regional banks total loans outstanding is made up of about 59 % home loans this is good news. In other words, investing in the banks now mean that you are not buying into a loan portfolio that is structured around historically high-priced real estate properties (i.e. low risk of overvaluation). In regards the future vulnerability of the home loans for the regional banks I think the last graph and the conclusion therefrom put in relation to the figures earlier presented for impaired loans ratio and coverage ratio for total loans outstanding provides a good margin of safety for potential negative macroeconomic developments.

What about the rest of the loan portfolio (41%) to SME businesses, farming and local authorities (municipalities etc.) then? From a macroeconomic standpoint there are both positive and negative notions that can be made. France is battling with high unemployment rate and a low GDP growth in comparison to other European countries.[28] At the same time French corporation tax is likely to be lowered in coming years from 35% to about 28% (especially if the right-wing wins the election) and the country is still the third largest economy in Europe[29]. Also, as in every other European country today the rates on French loans are at record low levels. Overall, my conclusion is that if we don’t see an explosive increase in rates I see no particular reason that the 41% of the loans outstanding should be seen as riskier than the 59% of home loans. Again, this statement in should be put in relation to the figures earlier presented for impaired loans ratio and coverage ratio for total loans outstanding and the margin of safety that appears to exist in therein.


Wrapping up the value investing and special situations story

In the good old days banking was simple, the bank would lend money to local people and businesses at a higher rate than it was deposited for, i.e. retail banking. Today the situation is a whole lot different since most banks as they have expanded wide in their field of business and geographical presence. However, as has been presented in this analysis there are still a few of these traditional local banks left. In France we find thirteen of these that are publicly traded.

As of 31 December 2015, total bank assets on a consolidated basis held by French banks, in France and abroad, amounted to EUR 7,674 billion. 83% of these assets were concentrated in the six largest French banking groups (BNP Paribas, BPCE, Crédit Agricole group, Crédit Mutuel, La Banque Postale and Société Générale)[30]. France is in other words not different than many other countries from the fact that the banking industry has an oligopoly structure. As an investor I don’t mind this at all, quite the opposite. However, you want the structure to be in “your” favour as the market share is often quite sticky in oligopoly industries, especially in the banking. If we take a look at some market share figures for mortgage issuance the picture is quite pleasant for the regional banks as it amounts to a 54,5% (i.e. mutual and cooperative banks)[31]. However, it should be noted that the Caisse Regionale banks are not the exclusive “owner” of the 54,5% whole market share cake as other branches also have regional/mutual/cooperative banks. I haven’t found any exact figures but according to a large investor in the Caisse Regionale banks that I have had the opportunity to email with (more on this later) the market share in most regions is above 50%. Considering that the Crédit Agricole group is the largest bank network in France I view this figure as plausible.


When I first started to dig into the bits and pieces of the Caisse Regionale banks it was the combination of simple retail banks with a large market share in an oligopoly structured industry selling at deep value multiples (P/B 0,3x and P/E 6x) that got me really excited. After a bit of research, I also found out that the regional banks could be viewed as a special situation case. This as a result of a buyout of Credit Agricole SA (ACA) at 1,05x P/B-multiple while excluding minority shareholders from the same deal. In the first part of my analysis of the French regional banks I presented this case and came to the conclusion that there existed a strong underlying catalyst. However, the story was highly unlikely to include a happy ending in the short to medium time horizon. Since the publication of the first part this I still my conclusion and things haven’t changed. However, this might change over the next couple of weeks since the legal process is about to start. If and when something happen I will write a follow-up post about it.

In my second and third post of the thirteen regional banks I moved on to present the value investing case of the Caisse Regionale banks. What I concluded in my second post was that the banks had continuously been profitable at the bottom line level for the last ten years. That the regional banks profitability was quite good, both in absolute and relative terms, and both from a bank efficiency ratio (53,2% average for the thirteen banks) and an ROE-ratio (5,9% average for the thirteen banks) perspective. That the regional banks financial stability was strong both in terms of absolute levels and in comparison to Basel III requirements. Finally, that the regional banks paid a dividend yield of 4,8% (average for the thirteen banks) at a non-distressed dividend pay-out ratio and a net-buyback yield of 0,8% (average for the thirteen banks). In other words, a shareholder yield of 5,7% (average for the thirteen banks). In this third and final post I concluded I was not alone in my interest of the French regional banks. I presented some well-known domestic and international value investors that have a large stake in the banks and are actively engaged in the current legal process. Finally, I found no signs that the regional banks loan portfolio was exposed to current high risk or overvaluation and that there was enough margin of safety to protect against future vulnerability in relation to worsening macroeconomic conditions.

In all of my three posts for the Caisse Regionale banks I have tried to punch a whole to the investment idea and continuously, in my opinion, failed to do so. That doesn’t mean that there exist negative factors and explanations for why these banks are selling at such low valuation multiples. Some possible explanations for the low valuation multiples (I don’t necessarily consider them negative) are the following:

  • The regional banks are quite small and illiquid. That makes them un-investable for many fund, institutions and big private investors.
  • The ownership structure is very complex and hard to get a grip of but was even more complex until just recently (see more about this in post one). This might result in that investors put the regional banks in the “too hard pile”.
  • All of regional banks financial information is in French. This makes them quite hard to analyse for a non-French speaking investor. Again this might result in that investors put the regional banks in the “too hard pile”.

In my opinion there also exist two factors that have some real weight to them for at least part of the explanation of the low valuation multiples:

  • One explanation for the low valuation multiples I think has to do with the banks limited growth opportunities. They conduct their business only at a regional level and more complex banking business is outside of their purpose and reach.
  • The second explanation for the low valuation multiples has to do with the fact that the shares publicly traded for the thirteen regional banks, CCI-certificates, are not entitled to the right of a vote (read more about this in post one). This will eliminate many institutions, funds and large investors as that don’t want or aren’t allowed to invest in these types of securities.

With the negative factors in mind I still consider the regional banks to be one of the best investment opportunities I ever laid my eyes on. In other words, the above negative factors can in my opinion not even close explain the price vs. value discrepancy (low valuation multiples) that the banks are selling for today if we take into account the positive factors earlier stated.

One last thing – a new catalyst in the horizon

In the last couple of weeks, I have had the delightful opportunity to pick the brains of monsieur Etienne Vernier over an e-mail conversation[32]. You might remember his name and articles that I linked to in the first part of the French regional banks analysis. He is a large and long-time shareholder alongside the funds earlier mentioned and is also actively engaged in the current legal process against the banks. He holds deep knowledge about the banks and I consider his insights truly valuable. Our conversation has helped me tremendously in finalizing this post. One thing really stood out from our conversation and has to be placed on top of my earlier positive facts about this investment opportunity. This has to do with his thoughts about the SACAM company, the 39 regional banks holding company, that now is the owner of ACA former ownership in the regional banks (read more about the this and the SACAM company in post one). Some of Etienne Vernier thoughts were:

CR = Caisse Regionale

 The loan to CASA are directly in the balance sheets of each 39 CR and the interests paid will be passed in expenses and diminish in their tax corporation liabilities. But the CR dividends received by SACAM will most likely be non-taxable. That makes net of taxes that dividends will be twice the interest paid or so.

Also i believe (I am not sure) that it would be absurd that SACAM repays to the CRs the dividends received by the same CRs (300 M€ in total). That would be strange. More likely, SACAM will amass that money and use it to buy CCIs on the market where they are at 0.3 of Net Assets versus 1.05 paid by SACAM. 300 M€ yearly would push the market prices up on CCIs.

After acquiring the Memorandum of Association of SACAM MUTUALISATION and 26 of the annual reports for the Caisse Regionale banks that are not listed Etienne Vernier concluded:

I consulted the 2015 annual reports of the 26 unquoted CRs in order to obtain a finer estimate of the dividends that would have received SACAM MUTUALIZATION if the deal had been in place last year. 

This resulted in a global dividend of € 297 million for SACAM and € 88 million to the CCI float of the 13 listed CRs.

PS: if they had bought the free float for 5.2 billion euros, it would have cost + – 40 M € of interest to CR to compare with +88 M € of additional dividends ….

[Etienne Vernier referring to the Memorandum of Association of SACAM MUTUALISATION]

You can see that the goal of SACAM is solely to hold, AND acquire eventually more CCA/CCis. Nothing else is specified so just one thing to do with their dividends. Buying more CCIs or at the worst sending this back to the CRs. The later alternative will improve the CR’s results but this loop would be very weird.

If you consider that SACAM yearly will receive close to 300 M€ of dividends and that the free CCI Float is around 1.800 M€, it will simply take 6 years for them to buy them all. Obviously since only 10% of the free float is dealt yearly on the stock exchange, such moves will probably push CCIs prices closer to 1.05 x their net asset values ! At the minimum, they can start doing it and this will sustain the prices and lower the cost of their holdings compared with the 1.05 they paid.

So to summarise and conclude both the value investing and the special situation case. Taking a basket approach (buying all thirteen regional banks) you are able to buy a stable +12% return (~6% ROE in an oligopoly structured industry and a growing shareholder yield of another ~6%) for a P/B multiple of 0,3x. On top of that you get the potential legal catalyst valued at 1,05x P/B for free and another free high possibility buyback catalyst in the form of the SACAM company putting its dividend money to use on the thinly traded CCI free float. In my opinion this is an investment I would make every single day with a smile on my face and one that I consider to be the closest to the Dahando investment philosophy that I have ever seen – heads I win tails I don’t lose much.

Disclosure: The author is long all thirteen regional banks (Caisse Regionale) mentioned when this analysis is published.


































The French regional banks – part two (1/2)

The story for part two

After posting part one of the French regional banks analysis a couple of weeks back I finally had the time to finish writing part two. In part one I told the risk arbitrage story of the French regional banks. What I then concluded was, even though there existed a strong underlying catalyst, that story was highly unlikely to end with a happy ending in the short to medium time horizon. Wrapping up part one I also sat the stage for the story of part two for the French regional banks when I wrote:

Next time I will present the other side and when put together with the risk arbitrage side I think a basket of French regional banks make a perfect Dhandho investment – heads I win tails I don’t lose much. So stay tuned!

If you are short of time or don’t care to read this second part of my analysis, I will for a moment leave the stage over to monsieur François Badelon (fund manager at Amiral Gestion[1]) to tell a summarized version of the story for the French regional banks that I will focus on in this part:

After listening to François Badelon I think you have figured out what part two is all about and what story I’m going to tell. Yes that’s right, I’m going to tell a classical value investing story about the French regional banks. Because of the length of text that part two has amounted to I have decided to split it up into two posts. The second post to part two will be published next week.

The numbers

In order to tell a good value investing story I think we all can agree on that we have to start with the numbers. Below you will find a summary of what I find to be the most important numbers and ratios to look at for all thirteen regional banks. If you are interested in the excel-document and want to take a closer look just send me an email at and I’m glad to share this with you.

*Note that the share prices in the excel summary represent my entry share price as of 13/10-2016. Since then the share prices for all banks have moved up a bit. To view the current share prices and the return on the regional banks since I bought them I recommend you to follow this link to my portfolio.

Price and value

For me price and value are not only cornerstones to the way I approach value investing, they are the absolute heart and starting point of my investing philosophy. I want the discrepancy between the two factors to be so evident that it feels like I get punched in the face by Mike Tyson, i.e. deep value.

In the case of the regional banks I got punched big time when I started to look at the valuation multiples. The regional banks are selling at ridiculous low multiples, both in relation to book value (average for the thirteen banks: P/B = 0,31x) and earnings for the trailing twelve months (average for the thirteen banks: P/E-ttm = 5,4x). This is also true if we look at the average earnings for the last ten years (average for the thirteen banks: P/E10 = 1,4x).


Not only are the banks cheap on an absolute basis. In relation to what banks in general are selling for around the world I conclude that the French regional banks are ridiculously cheap. It might not be the fairest comparison but two European banks that should be selling at very low multiples are Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS) and Deutsche Bank AG (DBK). The current P/B-multiples for those banks as of current date are 0,4x and 0,5x respectively. Regarding P/E-ttm, a comparison shows that both RBS and DBK have a negative earnings number for the last twelve months, i.e. P/E = N/A. Finally, P/E10 for RBS is still N/A since the aggregate profit is negative for the last ten years, for DBK the P/E10 multiple is 15x. We can also compare the multiples in relation to Credit Agricole SA (ACA). If you remember from my part one analysis the regional banks together own 56,7 % of ACA and until very recently ACA in return owned 25 % of each regional bank. ACA is currently selling for P/B = 0,5x, P/E = 8,8x and P/E10 = 25,7x.[2]

When I have found something that I consider to be Mike-Tyson-punched-in-the-face-cheap I move on trying to map the explanation for the discrepancy. The reason behind this is that; when something is really cheap there is often a good explanation for it. As a deep value investor I’m quite used to owning stuff that no one wants or care about and where there also exists an explanation for why this is so. What I try to do is to take advantage of these situation. Not because I necessarily disagree with the explanation but because Mr Markets has an ability to estimate the probability and/or effect of that explanation in a very biased manner. This is commonly related to the notion of loss aversion and some other well-known biases. Going forward with this analysis I will start to dive into the different parts of the banks numbers and ratios with the intention to map out the underlying explanation for the very low valuation multiples.


A typical deep value story often includes the words “negative” and “loss”. However, all thirteen French regional banks have been profitable on a net income level every single year for the last ten years (note that I haven’t checked further back in time). The same statement cannot be made for most banks in Europe (or the in world for that matter) and especially not for RBS and DBK. Taking into account the evolvement of the banking sector with increased capitol demands over the last ten years at the same time dealing with a difficult macro-economic environment in France, I find this achievement from the regional banks really impressive. On the negative however it should be noted that the annual growth rate for the top and bottom line of the regional banks is quite unimpressive  (most regional banks range in between 0-2 % CAGR for the last ten years).

When it comes to evaluating bank profitability, not only looking at which banks have showed a stable earnings and growth record, two common metrics are used. Those are bank efficiency ratio (also known as cost-to-income-ratio) and return on equity (ROE). Let’s take a look at the regional banks profitability in relation to these ratios and how they compare to other banks.

Bank efficiency ratio

The bank efficiency ratio is a measures that shows how cost efficiency a bank is. It’s a good measure to use in order to get a grip of banks quality attributes. The measure takes the bank costs (personnel, administration, depreciation, and other costs) as a percentage of the banks net banking income. In short, a lower bank efficiency ratio is better than a higher one.

Before I present the French regional banks efficiency ratios I would like to set the stage for what level of bank efficiency is to be viewed as good vs. bad. In an article published in April 2016 the bank efficiency ratio of banks worldwide was presented[3]. This might not be the fairest comparison as the ratio will naturally vary between countries, legislation and the type of banking that the bank provides. Also, the article is focused on large banks, such as ACA, DBK and RBK, not regional banks that have a focus on retail banking. Nevertheless, here is an overview:



The same article also presents the ratio for specific banks. Below I have included the table for some European banks, including the ones that earlier have been mentioned in this analysis (RBK, DBK and ACA):


Now to the French regional banks. In the picture below I have presented the efficiency ratios for each regional bank. The ratio is presented both for the 2016 half year report and for the 2015 full fiscal year.


As can be observed above, the efficiency ratio for most regional banks are really good in comparison with the largest European banks. Moreover, in relation to the bank efficiency map, where the average bank efficiency ratio for France is stated to be 65,86 %, all regional banks come out on top. The same statement is also true in comparison to the average for many other European countries presented in the article. This final line of argument can also be validated via data from the The European banking authority (EBA). The EBA has a “risk dashboard” that is regularly updated (the latest update is for Q2 2016 figures[4]). The cost to income ratio for 156 European banks is divided into three buckets (green being the best and red being the worst).


As can be observed by the latest figures, 63,8 % of the 156 banks are placed in the worst bucket with a cost to income ratio of > 60 %. Going back to the table above for the thirteen regional banks, all of them except EPA:CRAP (freaky coincidence with the ticker name!?) are placed in the yellow bucket. Note that only 26,1 % of the 156 banks can be found in the yellow bucket and 10,1 % in the green bucket. To summarize and conclude, I find profitability achievement for the regional banks from a bank efficiency ratio perspective to be quite impressive and satisfactory both on an absolute and relative scale.

Return on equity

Moving on to the other profitability measure, return on equity (ROE). When we look at this metric it is important to note that it varies quite a lot between industries. Banks is one of the industries where the metric usually is low on an absolute scale, often in the low single digit range.[5] This statement is validated from the EBA “risk dashboard” regarding the 156 European banks ROE over the period Q4 2014 – Q2 2016. For all quarters the green bucket (banks that achieve a double digit ROE) has continuously included the fewest number of banks.[6]


In the picture below I have presented the ROE for the trailing twelve month and 5-year average for each regional bank.


Of the thirteen regional banks, based on ROE-ttm, six of those are placed in the red bucket (< 6 %). The rest are placed in the yellow bucket (6-10%). If we take a look at the 5-year ROE the number of regional banks that are placed in the red bucket is lowered to five. Taking into account that the majority of the French regional banks, both on a ttm (average for the thirteen regional banks = 5,9 %) and 5-year average basis (average for the thirteen regional banks = 6,1 %), are placed in the yellow bucket I again find the results quite impressive and satisfactory both on an absolute and relative level. Although, not to the same extent as was the case for the bank efficiency ratio.

Capital allocation

Banks are known for having a shareholder friendly attitude to their capitol allocation. Typically, they have a dividend rate above most other industries and, although not that common, some also have buyback programs. I haven’t found any good article or paper covering the buybacks from banks in Europe or in the world (if you know any please let me know). But what I have found is a good summary for dividend yields of banks in both the US and Europe. Again, this might not be the fairest comparison taking into account the size and nature of the banks included. Nevertheless, the average dividend yield for the twenty banks in Europe with the highest yield is currently 5,0 %[7]. In an article from march 2016 the 16 banks US banks included had an average dividend yield of 2,4 %[8]. The same article covering US banks also include the pay-out ratio for these banks. The average pay-out ratio for the same banks amounted to 29 %. With these figures in mind I would like to present the figures for the thirteen French regional banks:


All thirteen French regional banks pay a yearly dividend to the holders of the CCI-certificates (see part one analysis for explanation of CCI and the capital structure for the regional banks). They all have done so uninterrupted for the last ten years and for most years they have also increased the dividend paid (again I haven’t checked further back in time). On top of the yearly dividend, all regional banks also have a CCI buyback program. The buyback program allows the regional banks to own CCI’s in treasury (most banks are allowed to own 10 % of the total number of CCI’s), to provide liquidity to the market (sell CCI’s back to the market that the bank has owned in its treasury) and to “cancel” CCI’s from existing.

Both in absolute terms and in relation to the figures earlier presented for the European and US banks the French regional banks looks quite appetising from a shareholder’s capital allocation perspective. With an average dividend yield of 4,8 % the thirteen banks are just short of the average for the top twenty European banks (5,0%) and well above the US banks average (2,4%). The same statement is made even stronger if we take into account the net buyback yield of the regional banks. Far from all of the regional banks have a positive net buyback yield but most importantly none have a negative yield (i.e. CCI holders doesn’t get diluted). If we add the dividend yield together with the net buyback yield, we get the shareholder yield. For all thirteen regional banks the average shareholder yield is 5,7 %. Even if I don’t have any figures from other banks to compare the shareholder yield with, I’m quite confident that the regional banks would have been on the top of such a list. One final thought is that the current pay-out ratio for the French regional banks isn’t what you would consider distressed. In other words, the regional banks have good room for continued dividend growth. In comparison to the average pay-out ratio for the US banks of 29 % the 26,2 % average for the French regional banks is also to be considered as good.

Financial stability

The banks have been under quite a lot of pressure over the last couple of years, both from legislators and politicians, to strengthen their balance sheet and to lower their risk taking. This enforcement as you all know is related to the financial crisis’s that we have witnessed and the rise of an ever increasing complexity in the banking system. The enforcement has in practical terms resulted in a regulatory framework, known as the Basel international regulatory framework for banks. I won’t go into details about framework, but I can recommend a good video presentation of the framework for those of you that are interested[9]. Two important measures of the current Basel framework (Basel III) are the CET1 ratio and LCR ratio. So let’s take a look at the ratios for the French regional banks and how they compare against the regulatory framework but also against other banks.


The CET1-ratio (common equity tier 1 ratio) measures the equity in relation to the risk weighted assets of the bank. In other words, the ratio measures a banks long term survivability and solvency in times of financial distress. The riskier the assets the more weight it will carry in the calculation, naturally cash will have the risk weight of 0%. The Basel III framework requires banks to have a CET1-raitio > 7 %. In addition, national regulators can require the banks to have an additional 0-2,5 % of capital on top of the 7 %[10].

In the risk dashboard for Q2 2016 the average CET1 ratio for 156 EU bank’s amounted to 13,5 %.[11] Explained differently, 74,1 % of the 156 banks had a CET1 ratio in the range of 11-14 % (se picture below). Only 21,6 % of the banks had a CET1 ratio above 14 %. The picture doesn’t change much if we look at the French banking sector in specific. The average CET1 ratio for the French banking sector amounted to 12,8 % according to the ACPR report for 2015.[12]


With the above requirements and the average ratios for other European banks I mind the French regional banks look really solid if we now view their CET1 ratios:


With and average CET1 ratio of 20,3 % the French regional banks are not only placed in the green bucket but they also display a high margin of safety in relation to the Basel III requirements. One again again find the results quite impressive and satisfactory both on an absolute and relative level.


The LCR-ratio (Liquidity Coverage Ratio) is measure of the banks’ ability to cover outflows of cash (net liquidity outflow over 30 days) with its “high-quality liquid assets”. In other words, it measures a banks short term survivability and solvency in times of financial distress. Currently the Basel III framework requires a LCR-ratio > 70 %. However, the LCR-ratio is increased every year up until January 2019 when the ratio of full implementation is required to be above 100 % (LCR-ratio > 70 % (2016), 80 % (2017), 90% (2018), 100% (2019)).[13]

For some reason the EBA risk dashboard doesn’t include the LCR-ratio. However, the EBA publishes a Basel III monitoring report for European banks where the ratio is included. As of the 31 december 2015 the average LCR-ratio amounted to 133,7 % and 91 % of the banks of the 227 banks in the report had an LCR-ratio above the full implementation minimum requirement (> 100%).

If we now turn to the figures for the French regional banks they are obviously a bit behind the above figures with an average LCR-ratio of 92,5 %. As of 30/6-2016 only two of the thirteen regional banks had an LCR-ratio above the full implementation requirement of 100 % (EPA:CRBP2 and EPA:CRLO). Quite many of the banks have an LCR-ratio just below the 2018 requirement (> 90%). However, one bank (EPA:CRSU) have a LCR-ratio just above the 2017 requirement (> 80%).


To summarise and conclude, all thirteen regional banks have a good LCR-ratio for 2016 and 2017 but need further improvement in coming years in order to reach the minimum requirement of full implementation of 100 % as of 2019. In other words, I find the current LCR ratios for the French regional banks on absolute level quite satisfactory but on an relative level I’m not impressed.

The SACAM transaction

As was explained in detail in part one, the regional banks (all 38 regional banks in the Crédit Agricole Group not only the thirteen publicly traded), via a new company called SACAM Mutualisation, recently bought back the ~25 % ownership that ACA had in each regional bank. The negative side of this transaction was not only that minority shareholders were excluded but also that it had a negative impact on the regional banks earnings generation and CET1 ratio. The negative impact is mainly related to the cancelation of the Switch guarantee (a 5 B€ warranty under which the regional banks charged a 9.34% interest on 5 B€ deposited with ACA since the crisis of 2008). Because of the transaction the regional banks have presented some restated ratios and numbers that I have mentioned earlier in this analysis. In order to be to provide a fair view and anlysis I thought it be good idea to present those restated figures and ratios as well:


Although the restated P/E ratios and CET1 ratios are negatively affected by this transaction the effect is not that material that it changes my former conclusions regarding the ratios (i.e average P/T-ttm = 5,9x is still ridiculously cheap and CET1 = 17 % is still way above Basel III requirements and good in comparison to other banks).

As was presented in part one the French financial market regulator (Autorité des marchés financiers, AMF) has reviewed the SACAM transaction and come to the following conclusions (Google translated from the AMF- statement):

Concerning the consequences of the transaction for the holders of CCIs, the AMF noted that the transaction will have no impact on (i) the liquidity of the CCIs, Sacam Mutualisation intending to hold long-term CCis acquired from Casa, (ii) the commitment made by the Regional Banks when listing Casa to distribute at least 30% of their result, this commitment being maintained by the said Caisses, and (iii) the remuneration of the CCIs, the Caisses Regional authorities have indicated that the remuneration for 2016 will be at least equal to that for 2015 and that their results should be increased by 2019.”

Casa = ACA
Caisses = regional banks

Similar statements have also been made by the regional banks themselves. Here is one in English from the regional bank Sud Rhone Alpes (CRSU).[14] In particular I find the first part of importance and interesting but the statement about the dividend policy and amount is of course soothing:

“The reclassification operation combined with the operating outlook for the Regional Banks therefore means that they can expect growth in aggregate net income under French accounting standards of around 10% by 2019.

Within this framework, the Crédit Agricole Regional Banks having issued CCI certificates confirm that they intend to maintain remuneration on these certificates in 2016 at least equal to that of 2015.

Furthermore, the commitment made by the Regional Banks upon the listing of Crédit Agricole S.A. to a payout rate of at least 30% will not be called into question, thereby guaranteeing the continuity of the payout policy for CCI and CCA certificates.

Finally, the SACAM company will allow the regional banks to strengthen their cohesion by pooling their results, “pay themselves” dividend instead of distributing this to ACA and take advantage of potential increase in value of themselves as good investments to a larger extent than before. To summarize and conclude, there is good and bad news with the SACAM transaction. Only time will tell if there is more or less of the other but as of current date I don’t see it to have a material negative effect on the regional banks.

Why me, God?

Based on my analysis of profitability, capital allocation, financial stability and the SACAM transaction it is hard to get clear understanding of why on earth these banks are selling for such ridiculously low valuation multiples. Nothing stands out as being the explenatory factor for the big discrepancy between price and value, both on an asset and earnings basis. When you find yourself in a situation like this I think it is a good idea to go back to Charlie Mungers famous saying:

When you locate a bargain, you must ask, ‘Why me, God? Why am I the only one who could find this barging?

In the second post of part two I will continue to paint my map of undervaluation. I will first try to answer the above questions by inverting it. I will also take a look at the current French banking and housing market and how/if that plays a role in the reason for undervaluation for the French regional banks. Finally I will wrap up the value investing story with the risk arbitrage story into a final map of undervaluation, i.e. my conclusion about the French regional banks as investment candidates.

Disclosure: The author is long all thirteen regional banks mentioned when this analysis is published.


As this will be my last post for 2016 I would like to thank you all for the feedback and comments I have received over the year. I means a lot to me that you take a part of your day to read my blog and interact with me. I wish you all a happy new year!



[2] Valuation multiples for RBS, DBK and ACA are based on data from