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As I watched Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps last weekend, I thought I was looking at a documentary. In one scene, a Wall Street bank bails out a weaker competitor for around the price of its headquarters.
Those are the kinds of deals JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) was doing during the financial crisis. Literally.
When Bear Stearns faltered in March of 2008, JPMorgan Chase swept in and ended up paying $10 a share -- about a 90% discount from Bear's stock price just a month before. Yes, that was in the neighborhood of the value of Bear's headquarters.
The difference between the movie and real life is that the terms were sweeter in real life. JPMorgan Chase also got a nice loan and a backstop from the government on the Bear purchase.
A few months later, JPMorgan Chase was shopping again, beating out Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , among others, to bail out Washington Mutual. This time, there was no government backstop, but JPMorgan Chase paid a scant $2 billion for one of America's biggest banks. (How scant? JPMorgan Chase's current market cap is north of $150 billion.)
What this all means is that JPMorgan Chase, which already had more than $1.5 trillion in assets at the end of 2007, grew by 40% in a year of the-financial-world-is-going-to-end prices. Yet even after a recovery from the depths, its share price and market capitalization are pretty much the same as they were at the close of 2007.
That is the reason JPMorgan Chase may be an opportunity.
Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Wells Fargo, and PNC (NYSE: PNC ) also used the crisis to opportunistically swallow up competitors and grow bigger. In fact, Wells and PNC doubled the size of their pre-crisis assets. Yowza!
And I haven't bought any of them yet
I haven't pulled the trigger on any of these companies -- except for some pre-crisis, long-held shares of Citigroup. In contrast, I bought up shares of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) after Warren Buffett made some ridiculously favorable moves during the crisis.
The difference? Berkshire Hathaway is as transparent as a $200 billion conglomerate can be. Even after going through the financial-reform process, the big banks have balance sheets that can hide many financial shenanigans. Lehman Brothers' antics, for example, offer just a taste of what can lurk beneath the surface.
My preference has been to look for great deals on smaller banks that were opportunistic during the financial crisis. Want an example? My colleague Matt Koppenheffer details an opportunity he likes.