Suffering bank investors search for bright spots

By Laila Kearney NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. banks are generally expected to post dismal results when their earnings season gets under way next week, but some analysts say to dig deeper: the fine print in the results, and what bank bosses say, could actually help these long-suffering stocks bounce back. Four of the S&P 500's top-weighted banks, J.P. Morgan Chase , Wells Fargo , Bank of America and Citigroup , are set to report grim first-quarter revenues and profits starting on Wednesday. Analysts are expecting first-quarter reports in the financial sector to show a 9.2-percent decline in earnings and a 0.2-percent rise in sales. The financials <.SPSY> have been the worst performing S&P 500 <.SPX> sector this year, down 8 percent as the broader S&P 500 is flat. "We think banks are about as low as they can go," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York. Bank shares are cheap compared to the rest of the market. Companies in the S&P financial sector are selling at roughly 12.8 times estimated earnings over the next 12 months, compared with 16.7 times forward earnings for the broader S&P 500. Investors like Ghriskey will be parsing those reports to determine if the low prices present buying opportunities or simply reflecting the sad reality of poor earnings for some time to come. Ghriskey, who said he'd be "very surprised to see positive earnings," said he will look beyond the numbers in the case he can gleam optimistic forecasts from bank managers. His firm is modestly overweight on financial services. The sector has remained troubled since the global financial crisis as banks have battled prolonged low interest rates, faced an onslaught of pricy reform mandates, and, more recently, were hit by lending to risky oil and gas companies. Even at seabed-low prices, it won't be easy for banks to prove their shares are a good buy. Investors will look for notes about the type of exposure banks have to the energy sector, which is facing its first quarterly loss in at least a decade, according to Thomson Reuters data, and is expected to be the biggest drag on the S&P 500. Bank shares could become more appealing if the companies can show a relatively healthy energy portfolio or that they are losing less money than expected on energy loans. Their forecasts might also strengthen if oil prices are in fact settling, as has seemed to be the case recently. U.S. oil prices, which had fallen to a low of about $26 a barrel by mid-February, had stabilized near $40 in March. Investors will also look for signs of strength in banks' investment and trading arms, said Nomura senior analyst Steven Chubak. "Any constructive comments on the capital markets outlook would be well-received given the very challenging operating backdrop in Q1," Chubak said. Kim Forrest, vice president at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh, does not expect much from the financial sector going into earnings week, but said investors will be looking for opportunity due to the low prices. An incentive to buy could include commentary about an increase in the demand for loans and banking products. "That could propel their shares higher," Forrest said. Earnings week begins in earnest across sectors on Monday, with metals company Alcoa scheduled as the first to report. Looking at the broad S&P 500, analysts' forecasts have been reduced so low that many companies are likely to beat estimates despite frail earnings. (Editing by Linda Stern and Nick Zieminski)