Hidden Traps Make Bank Stocks a Bad Deal

Billionaire investor George Soros said yesterday (Monday) that the U.S. recovery would be a slow one because of all the "basically bankrupt" financial companies impeding it.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Congress agreed Friday that the financial system - not the American taxpayer - should bear the costs of bank bailouts. Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), wants the banks to ante up $45 billion - three years' worth of deposit-insurance premiums - to bail out the fund that insures bank deposits.

When it comes to bank stocks, we all know that there were a number of Money Morning readers shrewd enough to buy Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) shares when the foundering giant's stock price was below $1 a share.

If you're one of those investors, good for you: With Citi's shares now trading at nearly $4.70 a share, that shrewdness - or courage - has been amply rewarded.

But the question we have to ask at this point is: Why would anyone buy banks stocks right now?

Bailouts Revisited

When the Bush administration bailed out the banks last autumn, I opposed the bailout. But I understood the rationale for it. The Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (OTC: LEHMQ) bankruptcy had clearly done a lot of damage to market confidence. Thus, a series of high-profile failures - however well merited - could push the market into a behavioral funk that might take years to emerge from.

After all, as we were incessantly reminded, the banks were all intimately inter-connected - not in the least by the diabolical credit-default-swap market. So a big failure could trigger a mass-market meltdown.

That justified the immediate bailout back then. But it did not justify the continued existence of those banks and other financial institutions - especially Citi, Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC) and insurance giant American International Group Inc. (NYSE: AIG) - a year after the bailout.

Even if there was an argument for preventing the immediate meltdown of those companies - to prevent panic - there was no good argument for allowing them to continue in business as zombies, distorting the market forever after. An orderly liquidation was what was really needed.

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But if the plans called for these three bad actors to be liquidated, it should surely be happening by now. Two of the three have even kept their top management for the intervening year. The exception has been BofA, where Chief Executive Officer Ken Lewis is now being shoved - kicking and screaming - toward the exit. (However, I have no doubt he'll end up being well rewarded for the indignity).

Japan's 'Lost Decade'

Economically, keeping banks and other companies alive after they should be dead is the mistake Japan made back in the 1990s. After Japan's massive stock market meltdown, most of the banks were technically insolvent. A decline in the value of the stocks the banks held had gnawed away their capital, while their assets were shredded by the collapse in the value of their real-estate loans.

Despite this, Japan opted to prop up many insolvent companies, which kept the country's entire banking system on life support until 1998 - hence the "Lost Decade" of financial legend. And a true resolution of the problem did not come until it was forced by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2003. The result was more than a decade of economic stagnation and a mountain of public debt that actually exceeded 200% of gross domestic product (GDP).

For the banks themselves, the fallout can be even worse.

An 'Artificial' Market

At first blush, the profits of the last few months look pretty good. And the record bonuses being threatened on Wall Street suggest that all is fine. However, there are two problems. First, bank earnings have been propped up by an extraordinarily bank-friendly monetary policy, keeping short-term interest rates at close to zero and buying up more than $1.5 trillion of bad bank loans from the markets.

That simply can't last. If it does, we'll end up with a bad case of hyperinflation.

As for the bonuses, does anybody think that if Citi had gone bust, and ex-Citibankers were now selling apples on the street corners of New York, bonuses would be zooming so high?

If the market for overpaid bankers had been allowed to clear properly, they would no longer be overpaid.

If the Japan's Nomura Securities (NYSE ADR: NMR) wanted to double its U.S. staff, as it announced Monday (an extraordinarily shareholder-hostile decision, given Nomura's lousy U.S. track record), it could just lean out of its office and whistle, and a parade of ex-Citibankers, ex-AIG executives and ex-BofA execs would rush in, begging for scraps.

It appears that the concerns that Soros expressed are well justified.

A Grim Reaping For Bank Investors

Since there are more competitors in the market than there should be, once the Fed's over-generous monetary policy is corrected, there will be too much competition, so bank profits will be squeezed. Conversely, there will be too many jobs in the industry, so banker pay scales will be artificially propped up.

If that's a recipe for good shareholder returns, I'm a Dutchman.

There's more. The populist fury against the banking system doesn't look like it's doing much about banker pay. However, it will almost certainly result in special extra taxes being levied on surviving banks, to pay for the bailouts.

The costs of those taxes will be passed through to shareholders, because competition from all the zombies that are still in business will prevent banker pay from being squeezed much. The extra levies that Bair, the FDIC chief, is employing to keep the deposit-insurance fund solvent also will fall on banks, although in this case it will be the small and medium-sized that will suffer the worst.

Squeezed profits, expensive staff, extra taxes and special FDIC levies - it doesn't look to me as if there will be much left for bank shareholders.

Expect 2010 to be a grim year for them.

[Editor's Note: It's not always what you buy that determines whether you are a winner or loser as an investor.

Sometimes, it's what you don't buy.

Throughout the global financial crisis, longtime market guru Martin Hutchinson has managed to call both sides of the game correctly. Not only has he assembled high-yielding dividend stocks, profit plays on gold, and specially designated "Alpha-Bulldog" stocks into high-income/high-return portfolios for savvy investors. His warnings about the dangers of credit-default swaps - issued half a year before those deadly derivatives ignited the worldwide financial firestorm - would have kept investors who heeded his caveats out of ruinous bank-stock investments. In fact, Hutchinson even issued a highly accurate prediction of when and where the U.S. stock market would bottom out (a feat that won him substantial public recognition).

Experts are taking notice. And so should you.

Hutchinson is now making those insights available to individual investors. His trading service, The Permanent Wealth Investor, combines high-yielding dividend stocks, gold and his "Alpha-Bulldog" stocks into winning portfolios. And the strategy is designed to work in any kind of market- bull, bear or neutral.

To find out more about the Alpha-Bulldog strategy - or Hutchinson's new service, The Permanent Wealth Investor - please just click here.]

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