Image: A Spirit Airlines Airbus A-319 © Richard Sheinwald, Bloomberg via Getty Images

Consumers hate them. Investors love them. They're companies that annoy us with high fees, rotten service and policies so abusive that you want to call the Better Business Bureau -- or a lawyer. And yet some of the very banks, airlines, insurers and other kinds of companies that you hate for their surly service and avaricious policies often turn out to be great investments. "It's easy to vilify them,"" says Morningstar analyst Jim Sinegal. "But that's probably why their stocks are so cheap and so attractive to investors."

Spirit Airlines (SAVE), the no-frills carrier based in Miramar, Fla., recently hit the headlines for hiking carry-on baggage fees as high as $100 for those who don't check in online. Spirit also charges for checked bags, drinks, snacks and booking a ticket over the phone through its reservation center. Legroom? Forget about it -- unless you're willing to pay extra, of course.

To say customers don't like this kind of treatment is an understatement. Negative reviews and complaints registered at total more than 600. But, says Imperial Capital analyst Bob McAdoo, Spirit is one of the best firms for investors.

Since going public in May 2011, the stock has soared 45% yet still sells for just eight times estimated profits, which are expected to jump 30% in 2013. That's a bargain for a firm that analysts see delivering annual profit growth of nearly 20% over the next few years. Besides, McAdoo says, many passengers complain about Spirit because they don't really understand how it works. "If you are expecting traditional airline service, Spirit is annoying," he says. "It would be annoying if you went to McDonald's expecting to sit down in a restaurant with a knife and fork. Spirit offers a different product."


Complaints about banks are legion -- from allegations that they engaged in predatory-lending practices to charges that they impose a variety of "gotcha" fees on everything from credit cards to overdrafts. But lately, many analysts have taken a shine to the banking industry as the companies improve their balance sheets and benefit from a growing willingness of consumers and businesses to borrow.

Morningstar's Sinegal endorses industry giants Citigroup (C) and Wells Fargo (WFC), both of which trade at modest single-digit price-to-earnings ratios. He considers San Francisco–based Wells a high-quality bank, with a simple business model and a deposit base "that's the envy of the industry." Sinegal says the stock is worth $42, or 20% more than the current price of around $35.

Citigroup is more of a turnaround. The New York City bank was drowning in bad debt at the height of the credit crisis, but the number of delinquent loans has been slowly diminishing. Citi recently ousted CEO Vikram Pandit and replaced him with Michael Corbat, a 30-year veteran who was in charge of reforming the loan portfolio. Sinegal thinks Citi may soon reinstate its dividend, which it eliminated in 2009, and values the stock at $46, 12% above its current price of around $41.

UBS analyst Greg Ketron favors regional banks, especially US Bancorp (USB). He says the Minneapolis company gets nearly half of its revenues from fees for processing credit- and debit-card payments. It also has a substantial trust operation that generates a steady stream of fees. With declining interest rates squeezing bank profit margins, that fee income is particularly attractive, Ketron says. He thinks the stock, trading recently below $33, is worth $38.

Cable operators

High costs, frequent outages, indifferent customer-service reps and long-term contracts that imprison unhappy customers landed some of the biggest names in cable service on 2012's list of 15 most disliked companies in America, based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. "The quality of service is horrendous," says analyst Andy Hargreaves, of Pacific Crest Securities. "But it's a great business."

What makes cable stocks especially attractive today is that the companies are finding a growing number of uses for their infrastructure -- those wire-filled pipes that connect to your home. Until those wires wear out, the bulk of additional revenue generated by new or increased use of those lines drops quickly to the bottom line.

Barrington Research analyst James Goss is particularly sold on Time Warner Cable (TWC), the cable company that was spun off from media giant Time Warner in 2009. The New York City company, which serves 15 million customers in 29 states, is making a strong push to provide high-speed data, voice, video and Internet services to small businesses. Goss thinks that will foster rapid growth for the next few years. Although profits are expected to rise only modestly in 2013 as TWC completes a cycle of large capital expenditures, analysts on average expect 12.5% annual earnings growth over the next few years. Goss believes the stock will sell for $130 within a year, or about 30% above recent prices near $99.50.

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