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JPMorgan: We're prepared for $23 billion in legal bills

October 11, 2013: 2:36 PM ET

Did Jamie Dimon just make another mistake in JPMorgan's legal battles?

Jamie Dimon

Jamie Dimon

FORTUNE -- On Friday, JPMorgan said that it had put aside $23 billion to cover future fines and legal bills. Even beyond the size, the disclosure was an unusual one. Banks don't typically say how much they have to cover legal bills. And it's the first time that JPMorgan has ever disclosed the number.

Bank executives have long said they won't disclose the figure because it could open them up to more suits or hurt their negotiations with regulators. Indeed, Jack Welch on CNBC implied releasing the number was a silly move on CEO Jamie Dimon's part. "It's going to be open season," said Welch, the former CEO of GE, who is considered a management guru. Welch said regulators and others will now know how much JPMorgan will be willing to pay.

But that excuse has always been a little weak. Just because JPMorgan is saying how much in total it would spend on its legal bills and settlements, it doesn't say anything about what it would spend on any one case. It could easily tell regulators that the money is committed to other cases. And indeed in a call with reporters following its earnings announcement on Friday, Dimon refused to say what the $23 billion was for.

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What's more, JPMorgan doesn't have to spend the money. It's just a reserve. And banks reverse reserves all the time. JPMorgan (JPM) took back $1.9 billion in loan loss reserves in the third quarter of this year alone.

Analysts had already made their guesses about JPMorgan's legal bills. Morgan Stanley analyst Betsy Graseck estimated the legal reserve was $12 billion, before Friday's announcement that JPMorgan was going to add another $9.2 billion. Another analyst put it at $15 billion. So the actual number was pretty close.

Nonetheless, Dimon must have felt compelled to release the actual number because of concerns that the bank hadn't put enough aside to cover large settlements. He may have felt that his bank was not getting credit for the money it had already put away. But the number does suggest that the bank still has significant legal bills ahead of it.

It has been rumored that the bank will pay $11 billion to settle claims from a number of regulators that it misled investors about the quality of the mortgages it was selling in the run up to the financial crisis. That still leaves another $12 billion that JPMorgan expects to pay out. JPMorgan is in the middle of a number of legal battles. But having paid nearly $1 billion to settle charges related to the London Whale, and nearly $500 million for manipulating energy prices in California, few thought JPMorgan, beside the $11 billion for mortgages, had that many more big ticket settlements still ahead of it.

MORE: 6 better ways JPMorgan could have spent $9 billion in legal fees

Analysts on the conference call also pounced on another oddity. On top of legal reserves, banks typically say how much they might have to pay in legal bills above what they have put away in reserves. Despite adding $9.2 billion to its reserves, JPMorgan's estimate of excess legal costs only dropped by about a billion to $5.7 billion. JPMorgan executives declined to comment why that number hadn't dropped more, and what that additional $5 billion could be for.

Still, a little bit of light on legal fees is better than nothing.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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