Financially Sound

When Standard & Poor’s analyst Robert McMillan agreed to provide BLACK ENTERPRISE with an exclusive portfolio of stocks last year, he told us that a slow economy doesn’t always damage the productivity of every firm in an industry. He thought brokerage firms might move in tandem with the market in 2004, while the short-term future of consumer credit companies was bright because interest rates were at their lowest levels in years and lenders could borrow money cheaply while benefiting from charging their customers higher rates.

Though he no longer works with the companies he gave us, McMillan was successful at finding firms that maintained their productivity — his five stock selections saw a 13.3% increase over the 52-week period from July 22, 2003, to July 23, 2004. By contrast, the S&P 500 rose 9.9% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average index jumped 8.8% during the same period. And the analysts at S&P are still bullish on his entire portfolio.

Conflict and scandal have not been kind to Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER). The once undisputed leader of brokerage companies has been battered by a firestorm of bad publicity. The result has been a 7.5% slide in the value of its shares, from $52.92 to $48.95. To improve its image, Merrill has partnered with the highly-regarded Morningstar Inc. to offer unbiased research. “We think Merrill Lynch is benefiting from an improving economy, increased investor confidence, and prudent expense growth,” says S&P’s Robert Hansen, CFA. Merrill is rated a “buy” with a $60.00 12-month price target.

Lehman Brothers Holdings’ (NYSE: LEH) acquisition of Neuberger Berman Inc. in 2003 helped push the investment bank’s assets under management past the $116 billion mark. “We expect higher advisory fees in fiscal 2004, given the higher value of merger and acquisition deals [that have been recently] announced,” says Hansen. Lehman stock has risen 9.2% since McMillan’s recommendation, going from $63.70 to $69.56, and S&P now gives it a price target of $115.

Capital One Financial Corp. (NYSE: COF) is one of the top six credit card issuers in the U.S. It boasts 47 million customer accounts and provides mortgage services, auto financing, and other consumer lending products. Consumer demand for these products catapulted the company to a 40.4% gain, jumping from $48.41 to $67.97. “We see improving credit trends, continued strong consumer spending, and historically low interest rates aiding results,” says S&P analyst Evan Momios, CFA.

MBNA Corp. (NYSE: KRB) is a holding company with three primary banks, and it’s the largest independent credit card lender in the world. More than 5,000 groups endorse MBNA products worldwide. Company shares grew 11.7% from $21.75 to $24.30, and S&P believes its stock price could reach $32.00. “We believe KRB shares are trading at a discount to its peers,” says Momios. “What MBNA’s current valuation does not reflect is the company’s better-than-peer-average credit quality and its ability to generate peer-average volume.”

Legg Mason Inc. (NYSE: LM) is a financial services firm with subsidiaries that offer asset management and private client and capital markets services and products.