The stock market's outlook may be murky amid its recent volatility, but investors' views on bank stocks have hardened into two distinct points of view: They are bargains, or they simply are not.
Kevin C. Pilot, a portfolio manager with the Private Asset Management known for his "vulture strategy" of investing-he bought Valujet shares after one of its planes crashed in the Florida Everglades with no survivors-is thinking about bank stocks again.
Mr. Pilot, 34, was an avid acquirer of bank and thrift stocks for seven years, but this year dumped every such stock in his portfolio.
"Banks and thrift stocks were becoming very overvalued," he said. "I am a very strict value investor, and I don't buy things that are even fairly valued."
But now Mr. Pilot, who also garnered attention two years ago when he challenged and debunked the results claimed by a popular investors club, the Beardstown Ladies, is attracted once more to banks.
"I am starting to see community banks selling at book value again," Mr. Pilot said. "My suspicion is that the selloff is overdone. Community banks have no foreign debt or foreign exposure, and they are selling off like money-center banks."
Consolidation is also likely to drive bank share prices high again, he added.
Not so fast, suggests John Lee of Hollister Asset Management. He said he is not likely to be buying bank or thrift stocks anytime soon.
Like Mr. Pilot, Mr. Lee was also an eager buyer of financial shares for seven years. And he also got out-disposing of the last of his bank stocks last year.
"We saw a lot of opportunity in other areas," said Mr. Lee, 31. "We don't like being the last person at the card table. The bank stocks story was wearing thin."
Though banks have severely sold off from their lofty highs, Mr. Lee said their story still looks worn around the edges.
"I need to see more blood in the market," Mr. Lee said. "A lot more blood."
Mr. Lee said that banks are in trouble today because "once again they have stepped out of their traditional roles as a banks."
They took losses in Russia "because they were taking the currency risk side of hedge fund trading, and that is what investment banks do."
They are reporting after-tax losses, but pretax losses can be much more, he argued.
Mr. Lee is also not optimistic about banks' operating environment in the future. "Interest rates cannot go much lower," Mr. Lee said.
And consolidation also does not offer much benefits, he noted.
"I still don't know anyone who has made a lot of money in consolidation," Mr. Lee said. "Look at all the deals today. Whoever bought Travelers, Wells Fargo, and NationsBank is down."
The market itself continued to offer little guidance on Friday. In another volatile day, centered on the release of the investigative report on President Clinton, the market initially fell but ended the day on a positive note.
The much-watched Dow Jones industrial average was up 2.36%. The broad market S&P 500 index was up 2.95%. As for banks, the S&P bank index was up 6.2%, while Nasdaq was up 1.68%.