The Stocks that Time Forgot

 | Jul 24, 2012 | 7:21 AM EDT
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First Horizon's (FHN) one of those banks where, for the longest time, you couldn't lose. It was the fastest-growing bank in one of the stable and consistent growth areas in the country: Tennessee. It was the hometown bank that grew nicely.

You figured it gave you a nice dividend and every time it got too cheap you could count on someone -- BB&T (BBT) maybe -- to make a bid and lightning would strike.

Just win-win.

Until, like so many other institutions in the mid-2000s, it decided to go nuts lending everyone who wanted a mortgage all the money they needed in areas of the country they knew nothing about.

I guess you could say that the government should have closed First Horizon, had it bought by another bank in a sweetheart deal or maybe a shotgun. Or maybe it should have been seized or just ceased to exist.

But it survived, one of a handful of walking-dead regionals like Regions (RF) and Fifth Third (FTB) and Huntington (HBAN) and Key (KEY), just companies that exist to make loans and make a little money on them while they reserve for the bad loans and hope that one day business comes back.

Now it's coming back. It reported a quarter last week that had some growth and an improvement in net interest margins. It has reserved hugely now for mortgage putbacks, including anything that the government enterprises might need. It has the best loan-loss ratios since the crisis began.

And yet people could care less. Because of the reserves it reported a loss. It has little dividend. It has a meager buyback. Unlike Wells Fargo (WFC) or US Bancorp (USB) it hasn't taken over gigantic share in the interim.

It's just there. A $7 and change stock with a tangible book value of about 10 that might not even bother to exist for all this market cares.

I think there are hundreds of stocks out there like First Horizon, where no one cares, stocks like the stocks that got bids yesterday. Did anyone care about Nexen (NXY)? I could have written the same thing about Nexen that I just wrote about First Horizon. RailAmerica (RA)? That was some deal that the once-kind-of-private-equity Fortress Investments foisted on the market. Geoeye (GEOY) was a total loser.

But ultimately their day came. The problem was you got nothing while you were waiting.

So what happens to something like FHN? Eventually what happens is that it makes so much money and it stops reserving any money because everything is reserved that you can buy it for cash. Or we finally get to the point where it can start paying a large dividend on its own because all capital requirements have been met and it is now running itself instead of the government quietly running it through rampant regulation.

Until then, though? I can tell you it is cheap until the cows come home and you will not care at all. Like Alcoa (AA), which I wrote up last night, it simply will not matter. You could say, "Jim, don't even bother me with them."

But we live in a strange world. I have no doubt that this company is worth its tangible book of 10. I have no doubt that Tennessee is now a growth area, one of the most stable in the country. I have no doubt that eventually you will make money.

But "eventually" is a curse word in this market and right now you have to asterisk First Horizon with "eventually" and I will just have to wake you when we get there.

I just hope it isn't too late.

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