JPMorgan's Big (Potential) Payout Weighs on Banking Stocks

Pssst, hey you! Want to make an easy $11 billion? All you have to do is leave me alone and let me make my money.

That appears to be the deal currently on the table between the Feds and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) . Today, the lawsuit-prone bank's CEO Jamie Dimon met with Attorney General Eric Holder for two hours. The subject, apparently, was a payout for that amount in order for the company to settle the numerous investigations now being conducted by the Feds about its crisis-era dealings in mortgage-backed securities. If the settlement goes through at that level, it's likely that around $7 billion would take the form of a cash penalty while the remainder would be paid as relief to affected Morgan customers.

The company is in a settling mood these days. Last week, it reached an agreement with a group of financial regulators to put the London Whale case to rest for a cool $920 million.

As for this potential monster settlement, no investor likes the idea of $11 billion in cash being drained from his company's coffers. Keep in mind, though, that the bank can afford it -- at the end of its most recent quarter, it had over $29 billion in total cash and monies due from banks. Maybe shareholders find the idea that sacrificing a big chunk of that money is preferable to fighting a raft of government investigations. Such probes have a way of dragging on for years, and they cost piles of cash to battle in any case.

Perhaps as a result, JPMorgan's stock is trading in negative territory today, but not as deeply as some of its big banking peers. That could be because they're not getting two-hour audiences with the nation's top law enforcement official to put their legal difficulties to rest. For example, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) made a few legal waves earlier this week when it was ordered by a Department of Justice judge to pay nearly $2.2 million in back wages to African-American employees in a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Or maybe the specter of a mortgage business slowdown is haunting those other banking stocks. In the latest in a wave of job cuts in the segment, Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) on Tuesday said it would eliminate around 1,000 positions in its CitiMortgage division. This is hot on the heels of Wells Fargo's (NYSE: WFC  ) news last week that it would issue roughly 1,800 pink slips in its mortgage unit -- on top of the 3,000 announced previously in the quarter.

This, despite moderately encouraging figures from the Mortgage Bankers Association. These show applications for home loans increased for the second time in a row last week, with the Association's market composite index advancing by 5.5% over the previous figure.

Rates are coming down a bit, too. According to Freddie Mac's freshest Primary Mortgage Market Survey data released today, the average 30-year fixed-rate loan dropped by 18 basis points on a week-over-week basis and now stands at 4.32%. The 15-year fixed-rate also fell by nearly the same amount, landing at 3.37% from the prior 3.54%.

But on a longer-term scale, those indicators are still far from where they were only several months ago. In early May, the average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was a mere 3.35%. And at that time, the MBA's index was around double the level of the most recent figure.

Government probes, lawsuits, the mortgage market blues... all in all, it's probably not a banner day to be a bank investor. The atmosphere will probably get much better when and if Morgan and the Feds strike a deal. And it wouldn't hurt if the home lending space also started to perk up a little more.

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