What will it take for Bank One Corp.s James Dimon to fall out of favor with Wall Street?
Apparently, quite a lot. Mr. Dimon, who marked his first anniversary as chief executive officer of the $265 billion-asset Chicago banking company in March, still struggles with earnings growth that is falling below expectations. Indeed, Bank One said in June that its second-quarter profits would be in line with first-quarter results of 58 cents a share. At the time, Wall Street was looking for 63 cents a share.
As the company prepares to report quarterly profits on Tuesday, the stars seem aligned against Mr. Dimon. Bank One is still saddled with flagging revenue growth and big loan problems, and a softening economy has not helped. Bank One shares have attracted no fewer than five sell ratings from analysts, a relative rarity in banking. Still, most analysts said they continue to have faith in Mr. Dimon.
Analysts, consultants, and investors said in recent interviews that Mr. Dimon was taking the right steps to revive the beleaguered company, and that they are willing to give him until next year to finish the cleanup.
A Bank One spokesman said Mr. Dimon would likely wait until earnings are released Tuesday to address investor concerns.
He inherited a bigger mess than he expected, said Nancy Bush, an analyst at Ryan Beck & Co. They are finding out just how much has been swept under the rug.
Mr. Dimon has shown a willingness to shift course. Late last month, he scrapped Wingspanbank.com, an Internet-only project launched with great fanfare and a $100 million-plus marketing budget two years ago. In April, Bank One agreed to buy the $8 billion consumer credit card portfolio of Wachovia Corp. That deal is expected to close this month.
More than anything, the deal for the Wachovia portfolio signaled Mr. Dimons intention to stay in the credit card business. It would bring Bank Ones struggling card unit, First USA Inc., to about $75 billion of receivables, third in the bankcard industry behind Citigroup Inc. and MBNACorp. Analysts said First USA is Mr. Dimons biggest challenge; problems in that Wilmington, Del., unit precipitated Bank Ones slide two years ago.
One indicator of a companys health is its ability to make an acquisition, said George Morris, managing director of Oliver, Wyman & Co., a consulting firm in New York.
It is a now familiar tale that Mr. Dimon achieved his celebrity status as the protege of Citigroups Sanford I. Weill, a relationship that culminated with Mr. Dimons being named president of Citigroup Inc. after the 1998 merger of Travelers Group and Citicorp. But he was unceremoniously ousted from that post in the fall of 1998.
After more than a year in exile, Mr. Dimon was recruited to help turn around Bank One, which had jettisoned its chairman, John B. McCoy, whose family had dominated the bank and its predecessor institutions for decades.
Wall Street expected big things of Mr. Dimon from the beginning, and analysts continue to say he is making the right moves in cleaning the companys balance sheet a task that involves selling off massive chunks of loans to reduce credit exposure and building a new management team.
Bank One sold nearly $600 million of loans in the first quarter. Mr. Dimon has said he expects commercial loan losses to increase in the second and third quarters as the company sells more pieces of its loan portfolio and writes down bad credits.
Perhaps even better, from Wall Streets perspective, were several changes Mr. Dimon made in management, including the naming of Philip Heasley as the head of First USA and Austin Adams as the head of technology and operations. The management hires were the most important change, said Thomas Brown of Second Curve Capital, a New York money manager. An impressive group replaces weak links.
Bank Ones shares have behaved accordingly. They jumped 41% from last July to January but have slipped back and are now up 21% from one year ago.
Those moves are only the beginning in turning the company around. Insiders agree that increasing revenue growth and cleaning credit quality, along with help from the economy, will be key factors in Bank Ones renaissance.
Sandra Flannigan, an analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co., said she believes the investment community was expecting too much from a disastrous situation. More time will be needed for Mr. Dimon to work his magic, she said. There was too much optimism in the marketplace, said Ms. Flannigan, who has a neutral rating on Bank One shares. The market would like to begin to see more progress on the revenue side and a cleanup on the credit quality side.
The economy has also made Mr. Dimons job more difficult. He has made headway, but the reality is he is working against a slowing economy, Ms. Flannigan said.
Most analysts said next year would be Mr. Dimons time to show results.
When Mr. Dimon took over, investors priced the stock for an expectation of a miracle, Ms. Flannigan said. Unfortunately we dont get too many miracles in bank turnarounds. It is one step at a time.
Mr. Brown of Second Curve Capital compared the effort to a plane taking off. I have no doubt it is going to take off, he said. It is just how much more of the runway will it use?