Halloween is right around the corner, and while most of us are no longer scared of ghosts or goblins, a zombie financial institution or a walking time-bomb of a bank would likely give most investors the creeps.
While the banking and finance industry has made some great strides since 2009, that doesn't necessarily mean that we can sleep soundly with just any financial company in our portfolio. I asked a few of our top banking and finance writers which stocks are scaring them now.
So Fools, what's got you spooked?
Robert "Guru of Gore" Eberhard
This is a tough one! My go-to answer -- mortgage REITs -- have been helped out by the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve in the past few months. With interest rates slated to remain low in the short term, companies like Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY ) and Chimera Investment (NYSE: CIM ) will continue to reap the benefit from larger interest spreads and therefore don't scare me quite as much.
I would have to say I am more scared about Citigroup (NYSE: C ) than any other financial company out there right now. The resignation of Vikram Pandit was the exclamation point on his sad tenure at the megabank. I am willing to give new CEO Michael Corbat the benefit of the doubt before lumping him with the bank's performance over the past, but he has quite the uphill battle in turning around this banking laggard.
John "Terror to the Max" Maxfield
It's a testament to how far the financial industry has come over the last five years that I had to sit down and actually think about which banks scares me the most. That being said, I've boiled it down to one category and two specific institutions.
First, only a bona fide gambling addict would buy stock in a European bank headquartered in, say, Greece. The National Bank of Greece (NYSE: NBG ) comes to mind.
Second, you'd have to be either a rocket scientist or certifiably insane to grasp Citigroup's risk profile. I'm obviously no rocket scientist, and though my wife may beg to differ, I've at least never been certified as insane.
Finally, I can't help but include Chimera Investment, a popular mortgage REIT that pays a double-digit dividend yield. This is literally the worst stock I can think of. Beyond the terrifying fact
that it hasn't disclosed its financial statements for over a year now, the company itself estimates that it has paid over $1 billion in dividends during the last four years while recording only $367 million in net income. Call George W. Bush, them are some fuzzy numbers.
It's not because its operations are shaky or its market is weak; I think the company is actually doing admirably well in some of its units (like Merrill Lynch) and it's making better progress than many expected in dealing with bad loans. What concerns me are the legal devils poking it with pitchforks. Never one to shy away from a crowd-pleasing, high-profile lawsuit against a big financial, the Justice Department has just brought a $1 billion action against the bank over the harassment techniques -- er, mortgage lending practices -- of the former Countrywide Financial.
Now $1 billion (or whatever they'll settle for) isn't a big payout for a bank of B of A's size, but the suit shows that the bank is slower than its peers to fix at least one of its broken operations. And mortgages matter! Other top lenders, most notably Wells Fargo
) ,are thundering ahead in home lending and could soon leave B of A well behind. This seemingly never-ending Countrywide saga and B of A's inability to get past it spooks me plenty.
Amanda "Monarch of Mischief" Alix
My vote for scariest of all goes to AIG
) , whose spectacular near-demise during the financial crisis spurred the most complicated bailout plan in U.S. history. Now that almost all of the Maiden Lane toxic-securities portfolios have been retired -- at a profit of $9.4 billion -- the whole shebang is being looked upon as a sort of victory.
Not that it didn't work out well for all concerned. The government did a fine job of cleaning up that mess, and making a little cash for taxpayers to boot. But, by painting AIG -- the poster child for "too big to fail," really -- as a sort of success story really does cement the notion that, despite all the trials and tribulations involved, bailouts are a workable solution to such crises. Why work on prevention when the cure works so well?
Just as disturbing is AIG boss Robert Benmosche's attitude toward the entire incident. This guy has come right out and said that the positive outcome is almost entirely due to the efforts of his company, and that everyone, especially the feds, should thank AIG for its herculean efforts. A lesson learned? I don't think so.
Are you scared yet?
Is Bank of America really as scary as billed? Or does all of the fear in the market create an opportunity for you to buy the stock? To figure out whether you should be a B of A buyer, check out our in-depth company report on Bank of America. The report details Bank of America's prospects, including three reasons to buy and three reasons to sell. Just click here to get access.