This Bank's Assets Are for Sale

Garage sales provide fantastic opportunities for sharp, determined buyers to find bargains. What's true on Main Street also applies to Wall Street. Exhibit A: JPMorgan Chase's (NYS: JPM) latest buy -- MetLife's (NYS: MET) mortgage servicing portfolio. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed but it's realistic to think they were a bargain; the insurance giant has lately been in a hot rush to divest itself of any remotely bank-oriented asset.

Backing off from banking
MetLife's been itching to get out of the deposit-and-lending business for a while. When it stepped onto the market in 2001 with the purchase of Grand Bank,it seemed as if that entity and MetLife's core business of insurance would balance each other out nicely. The idea was to counter the more than $25 billion or so the insurance arm paid out every year with income from retail banking.

That's an interesting plan, and the newborn MetLife Bank bopped along for the better part of a decade, but not before changing the character of its parent. Since MetLife was now in the borrowing-and-lending business, it became classified as a bank holding company, a form of corporation regulated by the Federal Reserve.

And as a bank holding company in the wake of the financial crisis of the late 2000s, it was subject to the government's recent stress tests. Guess what? That's right; it was one of the few that failed, joining three other "luminaries" -- Citigroup, Ally Financial, and SunTrust (NYS: STI) -- in the Financial Hall of Shame.

That was embarrassing, but what reddened MetLife's face even more was when the Federal Reserve nixed the company's plans to shed some of its excess capital. That was a tough blow, considering the insurer was aiming to spend around $2 billion in share buybacks and crank its dividend nearly 50% higher, from $0.74 a share to $1.10.

Meanwhile, rival companies not shackled by Fed decrees pushed ahead with similar plans. Prudential (NYS: PRU) , for example, cheerfully launched a $1 billion buyback program.

At least there's a buyer or two
Not long after the financial crisis, MetLife had opted to exit the banking business. The Fed's boom-lowering only cemented that decision. The company tried, and is still trying, to advance gestating efforts to sell off around $7.5 billion in MetLife Bank deposits to General Electric's (NYS: GE) powerful GE Capital. This divestment is the key requirement for the firm to get out of the segment and no longer be a Fed-regulated bank holding company.

But the process is going slowly (its original self-mandated deadline was June 30), and the New York-based insurer is going to have its hands full dealing with insurance claims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

So this was a good time to pick up a side business or two from the company. Well, maybe "side business" is the wrong way to describe that mortgage-servicing portfolio. All told, that particular briefcase contains around $70 billion in assets.

Before chucking that into its shopping basket, JPMorgan Chase had around $1.1 trillion in such assets, meaning the MetLife paper will boost the latter figure by more than 5% -- not bad for a garage-sale find.

Buy a home, enrich a banker
Although their immediate future might be a bit cloudy, mortgages (and anything related to them) are the hot item for American banks at the moment. Home-lending king Wells Fargo led the charge, with a 56% year-over-year boom in originations during Q3 (to $139 billion). Other banks also posted double-digit jumps in the segment.

One of those was JPMorgan Chase, and it's obviously hungry to enlarge that business. Its Q3 originations saw a decent boost, but at a 29% annual rise to $47 billion, they didn't come anywhere close to Wells' firepower.

At its heart, JPMorgan Chase is an investment bank with retail operations tacked on. Investment bankers don't like to be No. 2 to anyone.

Mutual benefit
For both buyer and seller, the mortgage servicing deal is a boon, no matter how much of a bargain it might have been. The insurer needs to get on with its MetLife, and the jettisoning of its bank assets could have and should have happened quite a while ago. The JPMorgan sale will hopefully give it the impetus to finally, finally get that GE Capital deal done.

And of course, JPMorgan gets a nice shot of mortgage that it should be able to leverage into more business and higher profits, if its recent results are indicative of a trend. The bank is good at leveraging assets; it'll probably do just fine with this particular collection.

So from this early vantage point, regardless of the particulars, the arrangement looks like a win for both parties concerned. Time will tell, however, if they'll continue to win at their respective ambitions.

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Eric Volkman has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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