The various settlements that the big banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis have agreed to pay out has become a hot topic. Settlements are ranging from six digits to as high as 11, in JPMorgan Chase's (JPM -0.26%) case, and are being paid to a variety of recipients for a variety of reasons. In a recently published report, several anonymous Wall Street insiders estimate that the total of all bank settlements related to the crisis could end up being in the neighborhood of $50 billion.
It's tough to tell with any certainty how much any individual bank may be on the hook for, but a good indicator might be how many mortgage-backed securities, or MBSes, were issued during the pre-crisis years. For instance, JPMorgan, which has already settled its cases, issued more than $460 billion in MBSes between 2005 and 2008.
However, the biggest player in the MBS arena during those years was Bank of America (BAC 1.24%), which issued a staggering $637 billion in MBSes. According to analysis by lawyers involved in the matter, Bank of America could settle for around $11.7 billion in penalties, in addition to around $5 billion in relief payments to homeowners affected by the crisis.
Investment-banking giants Morgan Stanley (MS 0.88%) and Goldman Sachs (GS -0.03%) are on the hook as well. Morgan and Goldman were the fourth and fifth largest MBS issuers, with Goldman issuing about $121 billion worth and Morgan Stanley issuing $96.5 billion in securities. Both banks are expected to be liable for at least $3 billion apiece, with about one-third of the settlement amounts going to consumer relief.
It wasn't just U.S. banks that behaved badly. Royal Bank of Scotland (NWG 0.39%) could face penalties of up to $10 billion for their role in the financial crisis.
It remains to be seen whether any of these banks will ultimately settle for an amount close to those mentioned here, or if they'll decide to let the lawsuits play out on their own. Different banks are being accused of different types and degrees of wrongdoing, which could affect how each institution decides to proceed.
Is it planned for, or will it kill profits?
The good news is that for the most part, these banks all saw this day coming and set aside a reserve fund specifically earmarked to pay for any legal obligations. However, the fear is that in some cases, the settlements may be more than the banks had planned on. A good example is the JPMorgan settlement with the government. Originally estimated to be in the range of $7 billion to $10 billion, the penalty ended up being $13 billion -- in addition to the $2.6 billion the bank agreed to pay for its role in the Bernie Madoff scandal, which itself ended up being much more than the originally speculated sum of around $2 billion.
Foolish final thoughts for investors
The effect on the banks' bottom lines remains to be seen. Bear in mind that all of these companies have an army of smart lawyers who are running the numbers and telling the companies what they should expect to pay out. In other words, the banks are planning for these expenses and then some -- and in pretty much all cases they already have the cash set aside.
The only things that could adversely affect the banks further would be a prolonged legal battle, should any of the companies decide not to settle or if the final settlement amount ended up being drastically higher than expected. While the banks have been pretty good (so far) about predicting settlement amounts, this is definitely worth keeping an eye on as things plays out. A lower-than-expected settlement could mean that billions in reserved cash stays with the banks, and a worse-than-expected settlement could eat into profits very badly.