Banks: the dumbest investment

March 8, 2011, 4:32 PM UTC

In the latest tough break for the banks, it turns out that shamelessly ripping off your customers doesn’t necessarily translate into big gains for shareholders.

Or at least, that’s one reading of a survey released this week by Boston Consulting Group. It says investors would have done better over the past five years to put their money in literally any other sector of the equity markets, from basic materials and energy to telecom and technology to lowly health care.

Another sterling performance

Each and every one of them produced a better total shareholder return, or TSR – a measure that combines capital gains and free cash flow yields – than did the banks. Alone among the sectors mentioned, they actually managed to lose investor money over the survey period.

So you can add shareholders to the long list of those aggrieved by the banks. By now that list is populated by just about everyone, ranging from those slapped with silly overdraft fees to those wrongly foreclosed to the saps stuck with the tab for the bailouts of 2008. That is each and every one of us, of course.

The only ones not on this list are the insiders who pocket the billions the banks skim off the economy in a barely recovering, Fed-fueled, zero interest rate economy. It is nice work if you can get it.

And though bankers are fond of saying they are the heart of the economy, you might well note it is not the healthiest patient you’ll ever see. Lending remains depressed, like so much else. Fewer people are in the labor force now than in any year since 1984, and 43 million people are on food stamps. But hey, who’s counting.

So much for the progress that Goldman Sachs (GS) claims is everyone’s business. Forget the way forward that JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is supposedly going to show us. Enough already about the passion to perform at Deutsche Bank (DB). For $514,332, you’d be passionate too – if evidently not quite passionate enough to accomplish anything useful.

Of course, outdoing the banks was made easier by the fact that the banking industry was the only survey among those listed to show a negative average annual return between 2006 and 2010, or minus 1.9% — and even that was artificially boosted by the infusion of taxpayer funds during the 2008 meltdown. U.S . banks, impressively, did even worse, posting an annual average return of negative 6.5%. Well done.

By contrast, investors in basic materials stocks tracking chemical and metals companies, for instance, made 16% annually, and those in consumer goods issues tracking the makers of meat, milk and office supplies got 9%. Other sectors turned in annual gains of 3% to 8%.

The banks trailed behind the average of the other industries in four of the five years, the exception being the government-fueled bounceback year of 2009, when bank stocks returned 47%. But last year, that return dropped to 6% — less than half the industry average.

“The reversal in performance was striking,” the report says. “The banking industry’s TSR went from being the third highest in 2009 to the third lowest in 2010.”

But if the banks have proven anything in recent years, it’s that they can always sink even lower.

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