THESE DAYS, plenty of investors who put their money into bank stocks are wishing that they'd just stuck with a dull, old savings account.
Battered by a weak commercial real estate market that has forced major banks to add huge amounts to their reserves for bad loans, bank stocks have been some of the worst performers in the market this year.
Some of the major money center banks, such as Citicorp and Chase Manhattan, along with regional banks, such as Rochester Community Savings Bank and Fleet Norstar, have been particularly hard hit. All of those stocks have fallen at least 30 percent in the last 4 1/2 months.
That weakness, in turn, has spread pessimism throughout the entire banking industry.
"All the bank stocks, unfortunately, are being tainted by the same brush," says Hy Scheff, vice president of A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. in Buffalo. "That's caused many of the bank stocks to feel some pressure."
And while the stocks of other banks with operations in Western New York have been battered almost as badly, some bank stocks, such as First Empire State Corp. and KeyCorp -- have bucked the trend a bit.
First Empire, the parent of M&T Bank, is off 6.4 percent since July. KeyCorp, which owns Key Bank of Western New York, is down 5.7 percent.
In fact, First Empire and KeyCorp even managed to outperform the market during that time. But that's not saying much, since the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 10.7 percent and the Standard & Poor's index of 500 stocks is down 8.5 percent since July.
But the outlook for bank stocks remains cloudy. A House banking subcommittee Monday heard a report from private consultants warning that most of the nation's largest banks are on the verge of insolvency.
And L. William Seidman, the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., warned that the insurance fund to cover bank failures will lose $4 billion this year and $5 billion in 1991.
Add to that the weakening economy, and it's conceivable that a bad situation for bank stocks could get even worse.
"The earnings prospects for the new year are hazier than usual due to the uncertainty as to the depth of the economic slowdown," said Theresa Brophy, an analyst for the Value Line Investment Survey. "It probably wouldn't take much to turn our 1991 forecasts of earnings improvement into earnings declines."
Still, there are some signs of optimism. Bank stocks rallied sharply two weeks ago after the Federal Reserve Board eliminated the reserve requirement on some of the banks' large deposits.
That led to speculation that interest rates might decline, which could increase the demand for loans and bolster profits. So far, though, that hasn't happened.
"That was not a significant move," Scheff says. "That was a bounce."
All in all, the murky picture makes it difficult for investors to decide which banks are turning the corner and which ones are still slipping. Much of that depends on the condition of the economy in the banks' major markets, along with the quality of the loans they've made.
"It's very hard to figure out which assets are good and which ones are not," Scheff says. "You don't know the quality of the loans the banks have extended."
It was concerns about loan quality in the weak New England economy that prompted major additions to loan loss reserves at Fleet Norstar Group. That, combined with lower earnings and a dividend cut, helped push down Fleet's stock by 30 percent since the end of July.
"It's declining real estate prices that
See Banks Page C7
Continued from Page C1
just terrorize the banks," says Peter O'Keefe, a partner at Trubee Collins & Co. in Buffalo.
Falling real estate prices aren't a problem in Western New York, and that may be helping First Empire stock do better than most of its counterparts. Its profits also are up 7 percent this year.
In addition, FMR Corp., the Boston-based company that runs the Fidelity group of funds, has increased its stake in First Empire to more than 9 percent through a series of purchases from Sept. 27 to Nov. 12. Those purchases may have helped support the stock and keep it from falling even more, O'Keefe says.
And in a market that's plagued with bad loans, First Empire recently came out as the least risky banking company in a survey of 86 firms conducted by Shearson Lehman Brothers. KeyCorp finished 18th on the same survey of the nation's least risky banks, which helps explain why that stock also has done better than the industry average.
At Goldome, however, the problem is a shortage of capital, which leaves the Buffalo-based bank well below federal requirements.
As a result, Goldome is trying to find investors to provide a capital infusion, but the chances of that succeeding are "very suspect at the moment," O'Keefe says. Without a capital infusion, the bank eventually could be taken over by federal regulators.
With a recession looming and uncertain prospects for earnings, bank stocks are not for the faint of heart, brokers say. And they're hardly as secure as money in the bank.