In 2008 and early 2009, the market meltdown pushed many stocks to the brink of collapse. Yet while some companies did in fact fail, many came back from the edge of the abyss to score truly amazing recoveries. Despite those spectacular gains, though, many of those comeback stocks still trade well below their levels from before the bear market. That suggests that if things truly are back to normal for these companies, they could well have further to run on the upside.
The amazing stock recovery
To start my research, I looked at large-cap stocks that had lost at least 80% of their value from the beginning of 2007 to the lows in March 2009. To capture the stocks with the strongest rebounds, I required that the stocks at least have doubled from their lows.
That left a host of interesting stocks. A few, including Wynn Resorts, have already gained back all their losses and set new multi-year highs. Many others, such as bailout recipient AIG and battered newspaper stock Gannett, are still nowhere near where they traded before the financial crisis began. But because I wanted stocks that still had some potential value-based gains in them, I looked only at stocks that were between 20% and 50% below their pre-crisis value. The stocks below were among the largest companies I found:
Drop During Financial Crisis
Recovery Since 2009 Lows
Total Return Since 2007
Las Vegas Sands
Capital One Financial
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Returns measured from Jan. 1, 2007 and March 9, 2009.
Your first reaction to this list might well be utter disbelief that anyone could think of these stocks as value stocks. But before you completely discount the possibility, consider this simple argument.
Why these stocks could be values
At the beginning of 2007, things still looked pretty rosy for the economy. The housing market had started to slow, but few people expected it would turn into the catastrophe that it eventually became. The bull market following the tech bust had begun to moderate, but the broad markets were still going up, and it wasn't immediately evident what would eventually cause a downward reversal.
The ensuing two years, of course, brought the world economy to its knees. But now, we've come almost full circle from that episode, and while the economy still hasn't fully recovered, it appears to be on an upward swing. And many of the doomsayers' predictions about massive company bankruptcies and an end to the credit markets as we know them have proven utterly false.
With the very real risk of failure, the fact that these stocks fell so sharply wasn't an irrational reaction from the market. And with that risk largely gone, their rebounds weren't irrational either. The big question, though, is this: Shouldn't these stocks have recovered all of their losses? And since they haven't, do their discounts from their early 2007 levels represent a value opportunity?
Taking a closer look
To answer that question, the easiest thing to do is simply forget about the last four years and compare the prospects of these companies now versus where they stood in 2007. More than half of these stocks -- American Express, Prudential, Capital One, CBS, Micron, and Liberty Interactive -- have seen their net incomes grow between calendar 2006 and the past 12 months. Granted, several, including Alcoa, Macy's, and Harley-Davidson, have suffered huge drops in income -- but none of them lost money over the past year.
Of course, net income is only one consideration. American Express, for example, faces an antitrust lawsuit that could jeopardize its position among the largest credit-card networks in the world. On the other hand, Micron has emerged from a cutthroat price war in its industry, which could arguably justify boosting its shares even further than they've already gone -- although it too has a hazy future ahead of it.
My point isn't that these stocks are automatically great deals just because they haven't recovered to their former highs. They all face future challenges but still have big opportunities ahead of them. In evaluating them, though, it's a waste of time to spend too much energy on where their stock prices have been the last few years -- because those times are behind them. What's important now is where they're headed in the years to come, and how that compares to where they were before the huge distraction of the financial crisis reared its ugly head.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger always likes a good comeback story. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy loves to run free.