I have to come clean.
When our co-founder David Gardner recommended Ford (NYSE: F ) in our Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter last November, my gut reaction was: "Yikes!"
Never having looked at Ford too closely, my general impression of the company was that it was the strongest American car manufacturer -- which is akin to being the most conservative no-documentation-needed subprime lender or the smartest reality show cast member.
My impression changed after I covered Ford CEO Alan Mulally's press conference at the Washington Auto Show in January (read my thoughts here). The more I looked into Ford, the more I liked its turnaround story, and the more I realized that I had fallen into a trap.
Those who were able to reserve judgment and heed David's pro-Ford arguments back in November are beating the market by 30%. Those like me who made a snide "Fix or Repair Daily" remark and moved on have missed out.
Today, there are two companies that are being similarly overlooked. If the bulls are right about them, they could be big winners from here.
Before I reveal the two stocks, you need to know a little about Bruce Berkowitz, who runs the Fairholme Fund. The guy is an absolute stud.
Morningstar named him "Domestic-Stock Fund Manager of the Decade" back in December. While the S&P 500 was down slightly in the 2000s, Fairholme Fund generated a 13.2% annualized return. Remember, that's through the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble.
His specialty is these Ford-like stocks that folks offhandedly dismiss. And he's not afraid of going in big-time on them either. As of his last filing, a whopping 57% of his portfolio was in financials. Included in his top 10 holdings are Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , and Regions Financial (NYSE: RF ) . Citi and Bank of America are the two megabanks with the most bad press and known balance sheet problems. Regions Financial is, as its name suggests, a regional bank whose stock has been beaten down to a price-to-book value of 0.6 because of its commercial-real-estate-and-construction-loan-laden balance sheet.
When you go garbage-diving, even the treasure is smelly. The question in these situations is whether the market is so blindly, unthinkingly down on these stocks that there is opportunity.
These three may be such cases, but Berkowitz's latest big move involves two other companies.
Two stocks that have been left for dead
The ignored stocks Berkowitz is buying? AIG (NYSE: AIG ) and MBIA (NYSE: MBI ) .
How's that for a left-for-dead pair?
To recap, AIG was duped by Wall Street into insuring a ridiculous percentage of the housing bubble fallout via credit default swaps, was bailed out by the government to the tune of an 80% stake, made headlines by fighting post-bailout for its employees' crazy-high bonuses, has a former CEO who got the company into various lawsuits and investigations revolving around allegations of accounting fraud, and recently had its chairman resign after losing a battle of wills with its current feisty CEO.
You may be less familiar with MBIA. Like AIG, MBIA and its even more distressed competitor Ambac Financial (NYSE: ABK ) got into trouble straying from their core insurance businesses. MBIA and Ambac normally insure municipal bonds, but they proceeded boldly (and heavily) into the world of insuring real-estate-backed securities. Oops.
So, yeah, there are legitimate reasons AIG's stock is trading at less than 2% of its reverse-split-adjusted highs and MBIA's fell from over $70 to under $7. For the same reasons, both AIG and MBIA have large short interest in their shares.
Why there is opportunity
But Berkowitz is betting big on both. How big? He owns 24.3% of the AIG shares the government doesn't; he owns 11.1% of MBIA.
Berkowitz's likely thesis is that each has fallen so much that they're essentially options. In other words, if he's wrong, he's braced to lose all his money, but if he's right, the stocks could go up many times over.
The buy case for AIG in particular resonates with me.
The disdain for the stock and the number of moving parts has my radar going off. At its height, AIG had a market capitalization north of $200 billion. Right now, it's less than $5 billion. But you also have to factor in the government's involvement. AIG has up to $182 billion of bailout funds available to it (of which it's taken well over $100 billion). Depending on how much bailout money AIG ultimately takes, how effectively it raises cash through asset sales, the remaining strength of its core businesses, and how onerous the government wants to make the payback, AIG could be a steal.
Though AIG and MBIA have been left for dead and could be presenting opportunities, picking through corpses isn't for everyone. There's much risk, and the rewards can be a long time coming -- Berkowitz plans on holding AIG for a decade.
If you're looking for some less complicated stocks, check out these 5 Companies You Can Buy Today. If you want to continue the conversation on AIG and MBIA, join me in the comments section below.