Worried About the Banks

 | Dec 12, 2011 | 11:46 AM EST
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No position I have taken in recent times has been as needlessly controversial as my stand against the financials. Every time they go up the catcalls are so loud as to be deafening. "Cramer," they write, "You kept me out of this big rally."

To which I ask, "What big rally?" and say, if you have a reason to buy them, be my guest. I don't.

For years I have had to hear that our banks needed to be competitive in Europe. They need to be involved in offering insurance on sovereign bonds and on bank bonds. They had to get involved in these currency swap markets if they wanted to maintain a global footprint.

What's hilarious is if they hadn't been in it they might be able to stay afloat here, a la U.S. Bancorp, and not be hobbled by the black box that is Europe. We don't even know what exposure these banks have. How much are they on the hook for? Is the counterparty safe, meaning that if they wrote insurance on Societe Generale (SocGen) have they been able to shift to something else and is that something else solvent. Think about how much heat Goldman Sachs (GS) has taken in the media because it got insurance from AIG (AIG) for the insurance it offered that had to pay off. It could have been a very big hole for Goldman if the counterparty had defaulted.

But, it is not just the European risk that we have to worry about with the banks. It's the core businesses. We got a hostile deal this morning from Martin Marietta Materials (MLM) for Vulcan Materials (VMC). That's a good piece of business. Nevertheless, those kinds of deals have been few and far between. That's a huge part of the big banks' earnings.

Same with equity issuance. We might be about to have the biggest IPO week in years, but it's not enough to save that business from sagging profits.

Meanwhile, the commercial banks are having so much trouble making money on their deposits. The net interest margin is declining. Capital raises could be in the works if the government wants to crack down again to avoid a European-like crisis. Dividend boosts are unlikely, and the buybacks have done nothing. There's no revenue growth and the commercial and mortgage losses aren't going away. Unless you get some floor in housing prices you aren't going to see earnings from that business that can save other lines. Plus, let's not forget that the government just took away the easy money that had been made in credit cards.

So go speculate. I would rather own Heinz (HNZ).


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