For many companies, this is annual report season, the time of year when we investors irritate our postal carriers by having armfuls of heavy company mailings delivered to us. The packages often look the same -- booklets in blue shrink-wrap mailers, for example -- but their contents tend to vary widely.

At, Thomas Brown recently reviewed the annual reports and letters to shareholders from two prominent banks: Fifth Third Bank (NASDAQ:FITB) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC). Both have greatly impressed him in years past, but only one did so this year.

Regarding Fifth Third, he noted:

  • "Scant attention (was) paid to the company's broken record of growth. Fifth Third's net income declined 8% in 2004, and its EPS fell by 7%. That's a sharp comedown for a company that had famously enjoyed 25 years of consecutive earnings gains, a point (CEO George) Schaefer highlighted in numerous previous letters to shareholders.
  • Schaefer blames the low-interest-rate environment for poor performance above all else. Other banks have not been so troubled by it.
  • The company praises its acquisition of First National Bankshares of Florida, but Thomas questions the steep price Fifth Third paid for it and worries about an unexplained shift in company strategy.

So what's going on with this company? Well, here's one possible concern: Over at our Fifth Third Bank discussion board, a user who calls himself "proudpop" noted the following: "Looking at Yahoo Finance, FITB is carrying $29 billion in debt compared to about $2 billion in cash." Hmm.

Wells Fargo, meanwhile, is another story. Thomas observes:

  • "Consistency, year in and year out." Just like those of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRKa) (NYSE:BRKb) company, Wells Fargo annual reports have the same look and feel each year, suggesting a company culture and perspective that hasn't changed often over the years.
  • A lack of glitz and gloss. Many annual reports are full of shiny, full-color photos which can be inspiring to view, but don't really convey much meaningful information.
  • A high level of disclosure, enhanced by easy-to-read-and-understand language.
  • An impressive letter to shareholders that's frank and takes a long-term view.

Fools on the Wells Fargo discussion board are also impressed with the firm. A user with the handle "Har1en" notes: "WFC is a large, established company with historically small stock volatility. It has a higher P/E than its major competitors, so you might think it's overpriced. I typically compare it to Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Citigroup (NYSE:C), and Washington Mutual (NYSE:WM). However, I believe that it is fairly valued right now, probably not a value investment, because it's not discounted. But I don't think if you bought now you'd be sorry in two or three years. (One? Maybe.) As for what a good entry price is, I don't know. You're right in thinking that this is a 10-plus-year hold. If you bought today, in 10 years you're probably looking at a decent return with minimal risk, and if you wait until a year from now when the stock's trading a little lower, how much lower do you think it might get? Is it worth it to wait? Who knows? I think this stock is great for a Drip investor or someone looking for a decent dividend while their money sits around. The dividend history is great for WFC, and the growth has been pretty good if you're prepared to wait."

How should we investors approach letters to shareholders? Thomas says he looks for three things:

  • Honesty in acknowledging problems.
  • Vision. He finds it useful to review several past reports, since company vision often changes quietly but significantly.
  • Hot buttons -- the highlights that the companies most want to show off.

Have you seen any annual reports or letters to shareholders that impress you? Let us know on our discussion board.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.