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Overleveraged. Too much debt. Need to pay down debt. How many times have you read that story?

You read it so much because it plays out every day and plays havoc with stock picking almost every time you see a savory stock down on its luck.

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This weekend, as I went through the charts, I was amazed at how low some stocks have gone, stocks that I would normally say to just take a flyer on, but turn out to have so much debt, short- and long-term, that they are just too dangerous.

Consider these perhaps poisonous morsels:

International Paper

(IP) - Get Report

-- Best-of-breed paper company with a 9.3% yield, but $11 billion in debt that has been endlessly piled on. How can that yield be sustainable?

Tyson Foods

(TSN) - Get Report

-- We know that prices for grain are way down. Grain is the principal cost of this company. But it has $2.8 billion in long-term debt and that's just too much to make it attractive.

Newell-Rubbermaid

(NWL) - Get Report

-- This once-great company's got a yield of 9.7%. How much do I want that? But how much do I want that $2.2 billion in debt on the balance sheet? Like a hole in the head!

Legg Mason

(LM) - Get Report

-- With its 5.3% yield and a brand name that must still hold some cachet, you would like to snap it up until you realize that the company's got about $3 billion in long-term debt. How can that company compete with

T. Rowe Price

(TROW) - Get Report

, which has no debt?

Leggett & Platt

(LEG) - Get Report

-- This company has a 7.7% yield but almost a billion dollars in debt. I like this high-quality bedding and furniture company, but how do I know that it can handle that debt-load through the trough. Same with

Masco

(MAS) - Get Report

, a similarly high-yield-and-massive-debt company.

Obvious examples abound everywhere:

New York Times

(NYT) - Get Report

,

Sara Lee

( SLE),

Las Vegas Sands

(LVS) - Get Report

,

RF Micro Devices

(RFMD)

(among so many techs with so much debt),

VeriSign

(VRSN) - Get Report

,

Weatherford

(WFT) - Get Report

(along with a lot of oil service companies with debt) and most of the restaurant chains, big and small.

Sure, a lot of it can be explained away for certain, because of lease payments or because it is balanced out with cash on the balance sheet and is a cheap form of expansion.

But a lot of it

can't

be explained away other than to say that bankers talked them into it and they lapped it up during the good times. Some of it was added just to buy back stock, like

International Game Technology

(IGT) - Get Report

and New York Times! Lotta good that decreased share count did for those companies. Some of it was added to change business models, like

American Express

(AXP) - Get Report

. Other amounts were added to make go-go acquisitions and expansions like Las Vegas Sands or

Liz Claiborne

( LIZ) or

Johnson Controls

(JCI) - Get Report

, or

Freeport-McMoRan

(FCX) - Get Report

.

The place is riddled with it!

That's one of the reasons why it is so darned hard to catch a real bottom. There's so much debt. You see it in every sector in every business.

In the last few weeks we have seen a bit of change in the market. The companies without debt have begun to outperform those with it, as there is a recognition that the credit situation -- which has deteriorated markedly since

Lehman

-- has gotten

worse

, not better, despite endless commentary to the contrary. There are so many bulls on this issue on TV.

Ultimately, the debt crunching will lead to bankruptcies and stronger companies emerging to the fore. But everyone who has tried to play that so far has been hit by competitors dumping inventory --

Bed Bath

(BBBY) - Get Report

and

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

are good examples of choices picked too early.

Office Depot

(ODP) - Get Report

and

OfficeMax

(OMX)

are difficult plays to see surviving given their balance sheets (lots of it lease) vs.

Staples

(SPLS)

. But if you step into Staples now you might have to deal with many more bad quarters from a slowdown in small business and the troubles of the two ne'er-do-wells.

As long as the credit crisis perseveres, the first thing you need to do before you buy a stock is figure out how much money it needs to pay -- not to grow, but to survive.

That's why so few of these vastly reduced priced stocks are worth even looking at, let alone buying.

You see big debt that is not for typical financing purposes, such as utilities and banks. I say move on.

Random musings

:

Barclays

(BCS) - Get Report

makes it? They actually didn't blow up? It's interesting to see what happens to a bank when it reports decent numbers. It can go higher.

At the time of publication, Cramer was long Freeport-McMoRan.

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