Fifth Third - A Medium-Sized "Zombie" Bank

By Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor
Money Morning

Following my report on the viability of the Top 12 U.S. banks, a number of readers have suggested that I missed Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB).

I’m happy to report that it wasn’t an oversight: The reality is that Fifth Third – with $120 billion in assets – didn’t quite make the cut, since it’s actually not one of the Top 12 U.S. banks. But given the high level of reader interest in our report (which ran Wednesday), I thought it was worth a look.

Alas, while it isn’t one of the Top 12 banks, Fifth Third is another “Zombie,” lurking in the undergrowth, seeking new victims (investors).

A regional bank based in Cincinnati, Fifth Third has operations in the Midwest, most notably in Ohio and Michigan. It also has some operations in Florida. At first glance, it looks like SunTrust Banks Inc. (STI) or Regions Financial Corp. (RF), both of which I classified as “Walking Wounded,” one of the four ratings I created to classify the banks’ health, and the rating that’s a notch higher than the dreaded “zombie” label, which was affixed to the worst banks in the group (is the worst of the group.

(The ratings, from worst to first, are: Zombie, Walking Wounded, Risky but Proud, and Hidden Gems.)

However, while the pattern of Fifth Third’s 2008 operations was similar to SunTrust and Regions, the Ohio bank’s results were significantly worse. Both Regions and Fifth Third reported losses for 2008 ($5.6 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively) after substantial goodwill write-offs. But Fifth Third also notched a $1.2 billion loss for 2008 – before goodwill write-offs, while Regions Financial made a $300 million profit. Fifth Third has slashed its quarterly dividend to a nominal 1 cent per share.

Though there are some positive aspects to note. For instance, much of Fifth Third’s fourth-quarter loss was due to its transferring $1.3 billion of troubled loans to “held-for-sale” status, causing an immediate write-off that worsened published results, compared to its peers.

On balance, however, Fifth Third’s situation is worse enough than Regions’ – its closest Big-12 analogue – that I concluded it belonged in the “Zombie” category, as opposed to the “Walking Wounded.”

Having said that, however, let me say that I have considerable sympathy for the bank and its management team. Citigroup Inc.’s (C) zombification came from unintelligent aggression over a period of 30 years, inventing many of the current financial crisis’ most-toxic products (such as auction rate preferred stock). And Bank of America Corp.’s (BAC) zombification came from – not one, but two – catastrophically foolish acquisitions within a year: Countrywide Financial Corp. and Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.

In Fifth Third’s case, there was no malice – Fifth Third did not invent any of the unsound idiocies that have caused global financial markets to collapse, nor did it go on an aggressive acquisition binge. Fifth Third was simply concentrated in two of the most economically troubled states – Ohio and Michigan.

In early 2008, Ohio had the highest rate of mortgage defaults in the United States – not because of its speculative frenzy in 2005-06, but because it had an exceptionally high proportion of borrowers whose ability to afford a mortgage was marginal.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, targeted towards lower-income households and hard-hit areas, may help Fifth Third’s business more than it will help other banks, in which case Fifth Third could edge back towards recovery.

But as it stands now, the bank has one foot in the grave, qualifying it for “Zombie” status.  

[Editor's Note: Whenit comes to either banking or the international financial markets, there's no one better to hear it from than Money Morning Contributing Editor Martin Hutchinson, for he brings to the table the kind of high-level expertise that our readers have come to expect. In February 2000, for instance, when he was working as an advisor to the Republic of Macedonia, Hutchinson figured out how to restore the life savings of 800,000 Macedonians who had been stripped of nearly $1 billion by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo War. If you missed the original “Top 12 U.S. banks” report – the story that was the precursor to this analysis of Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB) – when it was published Wednesday, please click here to access it and check it out. The report is free of charge. And judging from the huge response the first story generated, it will be well worth your time to read.]

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