Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Top 5 Total Return to Shareholders: #3 ESB Financial Corporation

I was recently moderating a strategic planning discussion with a multi-billion dollar in assets financial institution. During the discussion, the President of one of the bank's most profitable divisions opined that less than $10 billion in assets was the "dead zone". They had to grow to survive.

I challenged the thinking. But he held firm that the regulatory environment, changing customer preferences, and the pace and expense of technology were driving the market towards bigger is better. In that, I thought, he has a point.

But I'm always looking for support. This blog has dug deep into the numbers to support the notion that bigger is better. I wrote about the best performing FIs in ROA (see link here), and how growth impacted expense and efficiency ratios (see link here). Neither supported this regional president's opinion.

This time, I searched for the top five best performing FIs by total return to shareholders over the past five years. After all, what is the point of becoming big if you cannot deliver value to shareholders? I used two filters: the FI had to trade over 2,000 shares per day so there is some level of efficiency in the stock (this created a larger FI bias in so doing); and the FI could not have a mutual-to-stock conversion during that period, which muddies the waters.

I will review my top five in descending order. Last post was dedicated to the #4 Bank, Bank of the Ozarks of Little Rock, Arkansas (see post here). The rest of this post goes to our number 3 bank:

#3: ESB Financial Corporation (Nasdaq: ESBF) of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania

ESB started in 1915 as the Ellwood Federal Savings and Loan in Ellwood City. It converted to a public company through a Mutual Holding Company conversion in 1990 and performed the second step conversion in 2001. Since its humble beginnings, it has grown to 24 offices and $2.0 billion in assets. Since 2006, it has returned 32% to shareholders as the industry returned -62% (see chart).

How has ESB done it? Upon reviewing their financial performance and reading their annual report and website, it appears as they do it through plain vanilla banking, a style that this blogger has expressed concerns about its future viability.

But you can't argue with results. ESB operates like many other thrifts... i.e. low net interest margins (currently 2.75% at the bank level), accompanied by a low non-interest expense to average assets ratio (currently 1.44%/the "expense ratio"). The expense ratio is extraordinary, as typical commercial banks hover around 3% and thrifts register in the 2.50% range.

ESB does traditional mortgage lending, with some commercial real estate too, funded by retail deposits with a heavy dose of CDs. Whether you like this model or not, it has delivered tangible book value and earnings per share growth that has driven its total return to shareholders (see table).

If you believe traditional thrifts currently trade on book value, as I do, then 12.42% compound annual tangible book value per share growth should deliver superior returns, all things being equal. Add a 3.68% current dividend yield, and the "plain vanilla" thrift is delivering to their shareholders.

Part of the secret sauce may be management longevity, as most senior managers, including CEO Charlotte Zuschlag, have been with ESB for 20 years or more. This gives employees comfort in management consistency, management a deep understanding of bank operations, and customers comfort in seeing familiar faces at the bank and in the community.

The CEO describes their success in the 2010 annual report as follows:

"Throughout our 95-year history, ESB has continually and successfully responded to change. However, we believe that sticking to basics and maintaining our commitment to the strategies that have made us a leading financial service provider remains a solid roadmap for continued growth and success. In this regard our priorities have not changed and remain:

• Focusing on per share results and working diligently to maintain our reputation as a company that creates superior shareholder value;

• Being financially conservative and managing our Company to the highest ethical standards;

• Growing the Company in a controlled and safe manner;

• Maintaining strong credit quality;

• Continuing to strive to exceed our customer expectations for quality products and services;

• Continuing to make investments in human capital, technology and physical infrastructure to ensure our long-term success;

• Continuing to provide a productive work environment that maximizes the alignment of customer and employee objectives and

• Seeking and consummating acquisition opportunities when practical."

She didn't say anything about economies of scale, regulators, or leading edge technology. The first bullet is very telling. Perhaps other bankers should take note.

Congratulations to ESB Financial. They rank #3 in total return to shareholders over the past five years. So far, our list is:

#3: ESB Financial Corporation
#4: Bank of the Ozarks, Inc.

~ Jeff

Note: I make no investment recommendations in my blog. Please do not claim to invest in any security based on what you read here. You should make your own decisions in that regard. My year to date return on bank stocks... negative. Need I say more?

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