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