Are big banking stocks cheap for a reason? More than five years after the financial crisis, banking shares continue to fall and have failed to win back the confidence of investors.

An alternative way to gain exposure to the financial sector is with ‘pick and shovel’ stocks. These are companies that provide the tools and platforms necessary for investors to access financial markets. One of the biggest and most successful in the UK is Hargreaves Lansdown (LSE: HL).

Hargreaves shares fell by around 4% after the firm published its interim results today, but the firm’s stock is still worth 20% more than it was 12 months ago. I believe Hargreaves could still have a lot to offer investors.

To highlight the contrast between Hargreaves’ performance and that of big banks, I’ll also take a look at HSBC Holdings (LSE: HSBA). Will the UK’s largest bank make money for patient investors, or could it remain a value trap for years to come?

Hargreaves Lansdown

Hargreaves results showed that it can still attract new customers in falling markets. The firm signed up 47,000 new customers during the last six months of 2015, compared to 23,000 during the same period the previous year. Net new business inflows for the period were £2.8bn, up from £2.25bn previously.

The influx of new business means that despite a 3.5% fall in the FTSE All-Share, the value of Hargreaves’ assets under management (AUM) rose by 7% to a record high of £58.8bn at the end of 2015. Pre-tax profits rose by 6% to £108m for the half year, while the interim dividend was increased by 7% to 7.8p.

After last year’s dip in profits, Hargreaves appears to have returned to growth. This has been achieved without sacrificing the firm’s incredible profit margins. Hargreaves reported an operating margin of 67.9% for the first half of its current financial year. This is down slightly from 70.7% last year, but in line with last year’s full-year figure of 67.3%.

Hargreaves’ share price has risen by 130% over the last five years. As you’d expect, this stock isn’t cheap and currently trades on a 2015/16 forecast P/E of 34. However, the dividend yield is still quite attractive. The shares are expected to yield 2.7% this year, rising to 3.0% in 2016/17.

HSBC: does size matter?

With a market value of £92bn and expected profits of $15.5bn for 2015, HSBC dwarfs Hargreaves.

Size is no guarantee of positive returns, however. HSBC has delivered an average annual total return of -2.6% per year over the last five years. By contrast, Hargreaves has managed a stunning average total return of 22.5% per year over the same period.

I’m not sure that there’s any evidence that the tide is turning for HSBC. The latest analyst forecasts suggest that HSBC’s earnings per share may fall by 3.4% this year. The dividend is expected to remain flat, at $0.51 per share.

HSBC only seems to have two attractions. The stock looks cheap, on 8.7 times forecast earnings, and offers a huge 7.5% dividend yield, which looks pretty safe to me. For pure income investors or value buyers with a long timeframe, I’d back HSBC.

However, if you’re looking for a decent total return with real growth potential, then Hargreaves could be a better buy than HSBC.

It may also be worth looking outside the financial sector for growth and income buys.

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Roland Head owns shares of HSBC Holdings. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Hargreaves Lansdown and HSBC Holdings. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.