Why Prudential Plc And Not Banco Santander SA Is Primed To Surge In 2016

The seemingly endless travails of the universal banking model since the financial crisis have seen shares in banks with outsized investment banking arms and global operations such as RBS, HSBC, Barclays and Standard Chartered all fail to recover to their pre-2008 prices. Meanwhile, Prudential Plc (LSE:PRU) shares have soared 550% since their 2009 bottom by focusing on the rather boring-but-profitable and safe core areas of insurance and asset management.

Despite this incredible run-up in share price, Prudential still trades at a reasonable 14 times earnings for 2015 with a consensus analyst forecast of 11 times earnings for 2016. Management has overseen dividend increases for five years running and the current yield at 2.77% has room to grow on forecast earnings growth of 9% for 2016.

Share prices have been driven down 7% over the past year due to the weak economic news coming out of China and the greater Asia-Pacific region, which accounted for nearly half of Prudential’s revenue in the first nine months of 2015. Despite the negative headlines coming out of China, overall Asia revenue was still up 20% in the third quarter and 31% year-to-date. The long-term trend for China and the region as a whole is positive as the growing middle classes will buy more of Prudential’s insurance policies and investment management products in the coming decades.

Possible regulatory challenges and the departure of wildly successful CEO Tidjane Thiam have caused sleepless nights for some analysts, but the strong balance sheet and appointment of 20-year company veteran Mike Wells to the CEO position should allay concerns that there will be any dramatic shift in strategy over the short term. With growth prospects and a long history of successful returns to shareholders, I see Prudential as a winner for years to come.

Too risky for now?

One would be forgiven for thinking of Spanish banking, the source of perhaps the largest real estate bubble outside the US in the mid noughties, as anything but boring. But Banco Santander SA (LSE:BNC) has set about to achieve this very label since the financial crisis. The Spanish lender has refocused assets on retail banking in traditional European markets and increasingly in Latin America, with a particular focus on Brazil.

However, the implosion of Latin America’s largest economy, which accounted for 19% of profits in the first nine months of 2015, has sent shares tumbling a full 33% over the past year to trade below their 2009 level. The recent inconclusive elections in Santander’s home market have also spooked investors who fear that the 3% GDP growth Spain enjoyed in 2015 may reverse under a coalition government.

Although the shares trade at roughly 0.66 price/book and offer a 5.95% dividend, which is finally being paid in cash rather than shares beginning this year, the situations in Spain and Brazil rightly worry many investors. The troubles in these two markets, which account for roughly a third of profits, is reason enough to avoid Santander for the time being until the situation in each country becomes more clear.

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Ian Pierce has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.