Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) has been on a wild ride lately. Shares of BAC stock dropped about 60% in eight months, from more than $15 in January to about $6 a few weeks ago. Then Warren Buffett rode in on his white horse and bought $5 billion in preferred shares of Bank of America stock, and the financial giant has rebounded 27% in just five trading days.
On Monday, the big news was a move by Bank of America to sell half of its stake in the massive China Construction Bank Corp. for $8.3 billion. The divestiture is the latest step in shedding “noncore” assets, allowing the bank to boost capital and lower its asset levels to meet liquidity standards.
This is on top of Bank of America selling its consumer credit card unit in Canada to TD Bank Group (NYSE:TD) for about $8.5 billion. Not including Monday’s China Construction Bank sale, BAC has sold off $30 billion in assets since 2010 — about what Bank of America lost in its buyout of Countrywide and the resulting toxic mortgages.
But the billion-dollar question here is not whether these moves help shore up the BofA balance sheet. They surely do. Investors need to consider if the sales will generate enough cash to allow Bank of America to lend, invest and grow its business in the future.
That remains unclear. And considering BofA has decided raising immediate capital via its Construction Bank deal is more important than the long-term profit potential of a big footprint in China, it seems the company may be focusing much more on instant gratification than growth in the years to come.
Liquidity Guidelines Weigh on BAC
Looming liquidity guidelines that will take effect in 2013 could mean much of the cash Bank of America has generated recently will never see the light of day. So called “Basel III” rules for global financial institutions will require banks to hold 4.5% of common equity (up from 2% in Basel II) and 6% of Tier I capital (up from 4% in Basel II), in addition to introducing capital buffers and more oversight.
In short, Bank of America needs to sit on a bigger stockpile of cash to guard against future financial meltdowns and systemic risk to the banking system. The tens of billions of dollars produced by recent deals might simply be socked away in this rainy-day fund rather than used to deliver shareholder value or help Bank of America grow its banking business.
True, Bank of America should easily meet these stricter standards — so it’s not like disaster looms. For instance, its investor relations page indicates Tier I common capital ratio of in excess of 8.6% at the end of March. However, simply meeting that threshold is not enough. A bank’s growth is dependent on the funds it has above and beyond those thresholds, and BAC has a long way to go if it wants to be on par with other blue-chip financial stocks.
Consider that even much-maligned Citigroup (NYSE:C), Bank of America’s equal when it came to government handouts to prevent failure, boasted Tier I common capital of 11.3% in its April earnings release. Peers like JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) also boast significantly better ratios than BAC, according to reports.
Is Bank of America a Buy?
A week ago, I penned a story on why 99% of investors have no business buying Bank of America. I still believe this is true despite the stock’s huge rally in the past few days. Just because your friend turned $500 into $5,000 at the roulette wheel doesn’t mean you should close out your 401k and head over to the casino. Bank of America is an aggressive and risky investment, and the scorching run in the past few days only proves this. Investors would be wise to remember the volatility always works both ways on Wall Street.
If you’re an aggressive investor or a day trader, by all means speculate in this stock. But buy-and-hold investors, those seeking dividends and income and folks who can’t afford to lose big should wait a little longer for the dust to settle.
The bottom line is that Bank of America remains clouded in uncertainty. The company could very well be stabilizing, but the Fed’s refusal to sign off on a dividend increase in March showed that just a few months ago there were significant concerns about whether the company had truly fixed its liquidity problems.
The China Construction Bank sale helps. Buffett’s investment in preferred shares also helps — though it’s a bit maddening to think he’s getting a 6% dividend on his investment while shareholders are stuck with a measly 0.5% yield.
Long-term success at BAC stock hinges on whether it can get back to the business of lending and growing earnings. Wall Street seems more confident in Bank of America after the recent headlines, but a brief bounce in share price does not mean the worst is over. Once Bank of America can show significant growth in revenue and significant reductions in bad debt — not just one-time pops on asset sales — then the company is worth a look from regular investors.
Jeff Reeves is editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.