Even if you can barely stand to watch the market these days, you've probably noticed that Bank of America (BAC, news) has been getting pounded like it's 2008 again. Rival giants Citigroup (C, news) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, news) are falling as well, along with a lot of other financial-sector stocks.

Among the reasons for this rout: fear that European bank woes will spread to U.S. banks, lawsuits from investors holding mortgage-backed securities that blew up, and the threat of a new global recession.

It's been three years since taxpayers bailed out the banks after the credit meltdown, and it seems the Big Three U.S. banks aren't out of the woods yet. They never regained the stock value they lost in the financial meltdown. And they're melting down again.

The question facing investors now is this: Have the latest losses given us another chance to buy the stocks of these financial giants at bargain prices -- or are these banks so troubled they can't be fixed?

I'm in the 'bargain' camp. Here's why.

Where the big banks stand

Let's start with the key takeaway: As hard as the market has been on financial companies, taking them down much further than stocks as a whole, this isn't 2008. Banks, for the most part, are far stronger than they were going into the credit meltdown in 2007. And in fact, if you go through investor fears one by one, you can make the case that most of them are overblown.

I'm focusing this column on B of A because it's the biggest U.S. bank and the loss leader, down 57% since January highs of $15.31. It's lost 35% in just the past month. But Citigroup is down 48% from its highs this year, and JPMorgan Chase is off 30%. So they should be asked the same questions.

Image: Michael Brush

Michael Brush

The two latter banks do have some advantages. Counting the bailout and other efforts, both got more government support than Bank of America during the credit meltdown. JPMorgan Chase in particular limited its exposure to the mortgage problem at the heart of that crisis.

Bank of America, on the other hand, took on added exposure during the crisis when it purchased Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch. Countrywide was a large mortgage originator, and Merrill Lynch was one of the biggest vendors of mortgage-backed securities. So B of A remains very exposed to risky home mortgages and a weak real-estate market.

But B of A's stock has also been beaten up the most of late, suggesting that it might offer the most potential for investors. Investing sometimes works that way.

I'm not the only one who thinks that these stocks look interesting. I talked with several financial sector money managers recently, and many believe the current selling has gone too far. "We think they are attractively valued today," says Ryan Lentell, senior research officer at Manulife Asset Management. "We think they are cheap for long-term investors." Manulife Asset Management manages the John Hancock Financial Industries Fund (FIDAX).

Veteran banking sector expert William Isaac is also bullish on bank stocks overall. "If you believe that our political leaders are going to get their act together and fix the fiscal crisis, and your time horizon is three or four years, I would think that banks are about as good a buy as you can get right now," he says. Isaac was director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in the early 1980s, another tumultuous time for the banking sector. He's now senior managing director of FTI Consulting, a financial services sector consulting firm.

Here's a look at the problems these banks face -- and why the worries may be overblown.

Catching the Euro-flu

One of the major fears about the large U.S. banks is that they'll get dragged into the mess in Europe. Among the big risks: They might be exposed via lending to and contracts with troubled European banks or by holding shaky European government debt. Another major risk is that capital markets might freeze up again if big European banks go under.

Several top-rated money managers I talked to discount these risks.

First, the so-called counterparty risk resulting from business with European banks seems small. "We don't know for sure, but it does not look like it is significant," says Michael Yoshikami, the CEO and founder of YCMNET Advisors, ranked among the top 100 independent financial advisers by Baron's.

Second, says Lentell, at Manulife Asset Management, the exposure of the Big Three U.S. banks to European debt "is small compared to size of their balance sheets."

Meanwhile, U.S. banks have strengthened their balance sheets and lowered their exposure to short-term funding problems since the crisis, suggesting they can weather a temporary freeze in the capital markets.

Fending off the lawyers

Bank of America is being sued regularly by investors, racking up big losses on mortgage-related investments built on home loans originated by Countrywide Financial and repackaged by Merrill Lynch. "Obviously, there aren't many days that I get up and think positively about the Countrywide transaction in 2008," Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said in a recent conference call with investors.

On top of this, attorneys general across the country are suing Bank of America for questionable foreclosure practices.

These kinds of suits grab headlines and scare investors. They may continue to cost Bank of America billions, and they're a big reason the bank's stock has stayed down.

But I'd put them in the category of the tobacco lawsuits -- a huge but essentially "one-off" issue that will pass in time. Big legal claims against tobacco companies tanked their stocks in the 1990s but faded as a concern as suits were resolved and underlying demand for the product did not go away. I think it will be the same with the banks.

"This creates an earnings head wind, but it is not something that will lead to solvency issues," says Nancy Bush, a former Wall Street bank sector analyst who is now a contributing editor at SNL Financial. While she thinks it may take three years to resolve the legal issues, the effect on the stock could wear off much sooner. "We believe they have enough capital and earnings power to handle it," says Lentell.

Bank of America just took a $21 billion charge largely related to mortgage issues, which may well have been the bank's "big bath." Morningstar analysts expect an additional $7 billion in charges from here. "There won't be the same magnitude of surprise, but it will be an issue that stays with us for several years," predicts Bush.

Note that Citigroup and JPMorgan have much less exposure to this risk -- so any drag on their stocks from the housing mess could ease sooner.

The double-dip dilemma

The more serious worry, of course, is that the economy slips into a double-dip recession -- bad news for Bank of America and its banking brethren sectorwide. Banks would all face higher losses on mortgages, credit cards and commercial loans. Plus, lending would dry up even more.

But a lot of experts still think we may avoid another downturn. Yoshikami puts the odds of a recession at 30% if Europe is able to stabilize its financial crisis. He cites recent relatively decent U.S. jobs numbers and solid corporate earnings. Plus, falling oil prices, low interest rates and a weak dollar all act as stimuli.

ISI Group's Ed Hyman, one of Wall Street's most well-regarded economists, also rules out a recession in the U.S. He expects 2.5% growth in the U.S. in the second half of this year.

If the worst happens, though, these three big banks are all in a much better position, financially, to weather these storms than they were during the last crisis. Bank of America has been making particularly good progress.

  • Total reserves, which are set-asides against potential losses, were at $37.3 billion in the second quarter, compared with $29 billion in the first quarter of 2009, according to SNL.
  • Tangible common equity, a common measure of financial strength, stood at $125.4 billion at the end of the second quarter of 2011, compared with $65.7 billion at the end of 2009, says SNL.
  • And it has $400 billion in cash. "Just think about the sheer amount of capital, the sheer amount of liquidity we have, over $400 billion," Moynihan told investors earlier this month. "Our capital levels are among the highest they've ever been. They're sufficient to run the company, even after we took $20 billion (in charges) in the second quarter."

Bank of America's key strength is that it's a dominant player in retail banking, with a strong presence in high-growth states like Texas. Through its vast nationwide network of 5,800 branches, it has $1 trillion in deposits. "The strength of Bank of America is its core funding," says Isaac. "Its liquidity is strong. I don't believe there is any possibility at all that Bank of America is so overwhelmed by its troubles that it fails."

Next, despite all the problems its acquisition created, Merrill Lynch is a profit machine for B of A, contributing to $35 billion a year in earnings before taxes and provisions for bad loans. "That gives them substantial ability absorb future losses," says Lentell. That's one reason he doubts the bank will have to raise more capital, a current fear among investors.

All the Big Three, in fact, seem better prepared for a crisis than the last time around. Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Ramsden estimates that 35% of the assets at Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are liquid, meaning they are in cash or readily convertible to cash, compared with 27% in late 2007. And core deposits make up 54% of funding, compared with 43% in 2008. "The current environment is not 2008 all over again," Ramsden wrote in a recent note.

Despite these kinds of assurances, Bank of America and Citigroup trade now at about half their tangible book values of $12.65 and $48.75, respectively. And JPMorgan, at $34 a share, is closing in on its tangible book value of $31.52.

Appetite for risk

So does all this mean you should rush out and buy B of A, or any of the big banks, on this dip? Not quite.

Peter Kolvaski, who manages the four-star rated Alpine Dynamic Financial Services Fund (ADFSX), is holding off on buying. He thinks they could fall more, as investors anticipate a double dip that may yet happen. Yet he sounds bullish.

"There is potential for very substantial percentage increases in these stocks as they bounce off the bottom here, but I don't know when that will be -- this month or two months down the road. Between now and the end of the year, there could be more volatility," he says. "But fundamentally the U.S. banks are stronger today than they were two years ago, yet the valuations are not that much higher today."

Likewise, Yoshikami is not adding to his Citigroup position now, and he isn't ready to buy the two other big U.S. banks. He'd rather wait for more clarity on Europe."I would rather lose a little upside to get more certainty. It's a matter of how much risk you want to take."

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This suggests a strategy to me. The big banks are safe to buy, and in fact look cheap because their financials have solidified. But risks remain, and as long as bank stocks are falling faster than the market, there's no rush. You can wait and still beat the crowd.

At the time of publication, Michael Brush did not own or control shares of any company or fund mentioned in this column. He has suggested that readers of his investment newsletter consider buying Bank of America and Citigroup.

Michael Brush is the editor of Brush Up on Stocks, an investment newsletter. Click here to find Brush's most recent articles and blog posts.