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Is Washington Mutual the next to fall?

Image: Washington Mutual headquarters
Washington Mutual had its credit rating reduced to junk status by Standard and Poor's.Robert Giroux / Getty Images
/ Source: Business Week

Washington Mutual, a company that once considered itself the Starbucks of banking, now has a stock price lower than that of a latte.

The question on many investors' minds is whether WaMu is more like IndyMac, the big bank taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in July, or Wachovia, a troubled institution that under new CEO Robert Steel appears to have won back some investor confidence.

The man in the spotlight at WaMu is Alan Fishman, a banking industry veteran who took the job as chief executive on Sept. 8. Fishman replaced Kerry Killinger, a 25-year veteran of the bank, who built WaMu from a small thrift to a national player in mortgages, only to see that business collapse with the housing bust.

A WaMu failure could cost taxpayers some $24 billion, figures Richard Bove, an analyst with the brokerage firm Ladenburg Thalmann.

Pep talk
In a 12-minute conference call with investors on Sept. 8, Fishman offered little in the way of new strategy, opting instead for just some words of inspiration for the troops. "I know I need to hit the ground running, and I'm prepared to do that," he said.

Run he did. In Fishman's first week on the job, WaMu announced it was cooperating with the federal Office of Thrift Supervision to provide more information about its operations and business plans. When credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the bank to junk-bond status citing its limited financial flexibility, WaMu pre-announced its earnings for the third quarter in an effort to soothe investors.

The bank noted that it had $50 billion in "liquidity" available and capital ratios "significantly above the levels of well-capitalized institutions."

Even so, Fishman has a tough road ahead. WaMu has $239 billion in real estate loans, according to analyst Bove. Some $53 billion of those are the dreaded adjustable-rate loans in which the payments are optional and losses are as high as 35 percent.

In July, Bove put WaMu on a list of several dozen shaky institutions. He figured any bank with nonperforming loans greater than 40 percent of its reserves and equity was in trouble. WaMu's was right at that 40 percent threshold.

Bove's loss estimates are close to that of other analysts. Fred Cannon, a bank analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, put out a research note on Sept. 15 that estimated WaMu losses could hit $28 billion this year and next. If that were the case, the bank would need to raise a further $5 billion in capital, Cannon said.

Where that money would come from is uncertain. The bank has already raised some $10 billion in the past year, including $7.2 billion in April from a group of private equity investors led by TPG.

White knight?
Many analysts feel Fishman's best bet is to find a merger partner, but there are fewer of those around these days. Bank of America's acquisitive Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis said on Sept. 15 that he had no interest in WaMu. The most likely candidate remains JPMorgan Chase, which allegedly made a $8-per-share offer earlier this year.

Says Nancy Bush, a banking industry analyst with her own firm, NAB Research: "They better hope somebody buys them fast."

Words of support came oddly enough from Moody's analysts after announcing their downgrade last week. David Fanger, a senior vice-president at the firm, said that WaMu, by its nature as a federally insured institution, had some capital-raising advantages over investment banks. Its two main sources of funding are consumer deposits, which are largely stable even in tough times, and loans from the Federal Home Loan Banks system.

In the S&L crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s, financial institutions received similarly poor credit ratings and were able to survive. Some were later acquired by WaMu during its aggressive expansion over the past two decades.

WaMu has lately been luring retail depositors with interest rates on 13-month certificates of deposits offering 4.5 percent, at the very high end of the industry. The firm has some strong retail banking positions, including top market-share positions in Southern California, Miami, and Seattle.

In his conference call on Sept. 8, Fishman dismissed a question about selling bank branches to raise money as "way early." He also said he didn't immediately foresee a need for the bank to raise additional capital. Said Fishman: "The opportunity to create a great national retail franchise has never been better."