TSC Ratings provides exclusive stock, ETF and mutual fund ratings and commentary based on award-winning, proprietary tools. Its "safety first" approach to investing aims to reduce risk while seeking solid outperformance on a total return basis. Fifth Third Bancorp ( FITB) shares have jumped 46% in the past month, quadrupling the S&P 500. It seems like a tempting buy, but the stock is too risky for average investors. Even speculators could find better alternatives. Bank of America ( BAC) and Citigroup ( C), whose shares have risen more than 78%, might be wiser bets for those looking to gamble, despite their high-profile struggles with toxic mortgage assets. Many view Bank of America and Citigroup as "too big to fail," meaning the government will do everything in its power to help these companies. That's not the case with Cincinnati-based Fifth Third. At a tenth of the size of its bigger rivals, Fifth Third more closely resembles the smaller banks the FDIC has been seizing for the past year. Fifth Third is substantially larger than these failed community banks, but a seizure could still happen. With assets of $119.7 billion, Fifth Third is almost four times larger than Indy Mac ( IMDCQ), a regional bank the FDIC took over last year. The move would be historic, but certainly possible. By the end of last year, Fifth Third had received $3.4 billion through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, shrinking its debt ratio to 10 to 1. Without the government funds, the ratio would have been 15 to 1. While bailout funds provide a security blanket to bondholders and creditors, equity investors get 1-cent dividends. The company paid the government $42.6 million in dividends on its preferred shares last month.
Over the past year, Fifth Third shares have dropped 86%, more than twice the decline of the S&P 500 in one of its worst years ever. Fifth Third lost $2.1 billion in 2008 and needs to repay the $3.4 billion in TARP money before it can raise its dividend. Motion-sick investors have endured wide swings in the company's share price, reflected in a beta of 1.7, a measure of volatility. TheStreet.Com Ratings rates Fifth Third "sell" and downgraded it to "hold" a year before the financial crisis took hold. Our safety-first model identified the company's high debt level and stock price volatility, and warned of trouble coming.