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In a sign that banks will continue to be punished for past mistakes, JPMorgan Chase set aside a large sum to fight lawsuits related to poorly-written mortgages during the real estate boom.
The reserves hurt the bank's income, which fell 23 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. The New York bank reported Friday that its income also took a hit because of turbulence in financial markets, which took a bite out of its investment banking fees, and an accounting charge. However, its customers were in better shape and more of them paid their credit card bills on time and took out more loans.
The largest bank in the nation earned $3.7 billion, or 90 cents per share, in the final three months of last year. That's down from $4.8 billion, or $1.12 per share, in the same period a year earlier. Revenue fell 17 percent to $22.2 billion.
The bank set aside $528 million for additional litigation costs in the quarter. The amount comes on top of $1.5 billion it set aside to fight litigation last year. This doesn't bode well for competitors like Bank of America Corp., which has been damaged far more than JPMorgan from lawsuits related mortgages.
JPMorgan's stock fell 4 percent to $35.28 in early trading.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. was the first major U.S. bank to report earnings. Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. report next week.
With 50 million customers, JPMorgan's results provide insight on how the U.S. economy is performing. Among the takeaways from the bank's earnings report:
-- American households seem to be more stable financially. More of JPMorgan's credit card customers paid their bills on time, leading to lower losses for the bank. JPMorgan was able to book a profit of $730 million by reducing the reserves it had set aside for credit card defaults.
-- JP Morgan's corporate customers took on more loans, up 12 percent to $110 billion. That suggests business owners are feeling more confident that demand for their products is picking up. The loans could be used to build new factories, expand plants or open new warehouses. Often that translates to new jobs being created.
"There are signs that last year's mild recovery might be strengthening now, and it is broad-based," said Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, at a conference call with journalists.
However, volatility in stock and bond markets caused by Europe's debt crisis hurt JPMorgan's investment banking business as companies stayed out of markets. Fees declined 39 percent to $1.1 billion. Fees from underwriting debt issues fell 40 percent, and stocks fell 65 percent.
JPMorgan also had to book a loss of $567 million loss from an accounting rule that applies to the value of its own corporate debt. Because the value of its debt rose in the fourth quarter, the bank would theoretically have to pay more to buy it back in the open market. When that happens, accounting rules require that the bank record a charge against earnings. Corporate bond prices recovered in the fourth quarter after declining sharply in the third quarter.
For the full year, JPMorgan Chase & Co. posted record net income of $19 billion, compared with $17.4 billion in the prior year.