Mary Jo White, the SEC, and Bank Investments

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At an event yesterday, President Obama introduced someone those in the banking sector already know, Mary Jo White, as his nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. The banks certainly should know here, just a few years ago she was defending one of them against the SEC concerning misleading mortgage investors!

White is a powerful attorney and has been a success in everything she's ever attempted. As the first woman to hold the post of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. That's the post that has the not-so-fun task of trying to keep New York City in line. In the role she successfully prosecuted terrorists and mob bosses. Now she has to deal with a group that in spite of how they think of themselves, aren't as scary: bankers and traders.

The SEC is still in the process of determining new regulations on banking and investments in the wake of the banking transgressions that led to the recession. Putting White in the role could be a sign that the President wants some more teeth into the regulations. Combine that with White's habit of personalizing prosecutions and it could be individuals, not institutions, who feel the icy cold fear of consequences under her rule.

Some banks should fear it more than others, of course. Here are a few:

JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM)

Both Chase and White are in an unusual spot concerning her nomination and regulation. You see, a few years ago, White was defending Chase against the SEC during her time in private practice. Will she recuse herself? Or will she go after the firm in an attempt to prove herself? I'd say no one knows at this point. Chase is an interesting case, investment-wise. While the firm is considered one of the best investment banks around it has certainly made some appalling bad plays recently. Don't let that $5.8 billion trading loss fade into memory. Sure, the bank could take it, but that doesn't mean investors have to like it. Sure, Jamie Dimon may be a rock star on Capitol Hill, but that doesn't make him or his bank untouchable. The bank's stock has just recovered from the blow delivered when the trading loss story broke, it's at $46.37 and back in April it was at $46.13. It's nice that it recovered but it also means no one's made money on it for nine months. A dividend-yield of 2.59% is nice but still, approach with caution.

Bank of America (NYSE: BAC)

Another interesting case for White. Years ago she defended Ken Lewis, who was then CEO of Bank of America, in a civil fraud suit. Still, I don't think that'll hold much weight with White. BoA has nowhere near the financial or lobbying muscle that Chase has, and that could make them vulnerable to the hardball treatment by new SEC regulations. The firm has pulled some real bonehead moves lately as it tries to find a way to hold itself together. Still, there's some activity that shows a retrenchment that could work, such as closing branches out in the wider world to concentrate on its most profitable centers. Also, who are they trying to kid with a 1 cent per share dividend? Still, the firm's stock has a 46.31 Price-to-Earnings. That tells me the market thinks it might be going somewhere after all the fuss. While I wouldn't advise you to make a huge play into BAC, it's worth watching. If there's more bad news stay away or sell, but any good news could boost the company's stock above its current $11.53.

Citigroup (NYSE: C)

Another interesting story, regulation-wise, is Citigroup. But not for its relationship with White. Rather, just a few years ago Citigroup employed the new nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew (I'll get to him in a later column.) I don't think the somewhat troubled firm can make much hay on that relationship in the current environment, but you never know, right? Having contacts in high places is a big part of survival at this level. Citigroup is another bank that is nervous about both the business and regulatory environment that White can bring about. CEO Michael Corbat even referred to the current climate for investment banking as 'challenging' in a recent interview. That might be the truth but it's also not a confidence builder. Surprisingly, though, of the three banks mentioned here, Citigroup's has done the best, rising from an early summer slump of $23.82 to $42.80. A nice little run for seven months. The firm's P/E of 17.17 shows that the market thinks the value is built in at this point, however, so that may not continue. Again, a 1 cent dividend is no form of incentive, too. Stay away and watch.

So, a new head for the SEC, who happens to have a strong prosecutorial bent, who is also known and knows the banking industry. She's also charged with actually implementing the new regulatory environment that congress passed in the wake of the mortgage banking crisis. I think this places a slight freeze on bank stocks for the next year or so as White gets up to speed. Once the regulations are in place and being enforced, there might be more room for growth. Until then, approach these sorts of investments carefully.

Good luck!

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