William B. Harrison Jr., the architect of what is now the country's biggest bank, on Tuesday offered a resounding defense of megabanks and the good he said they do.
A decade ago, Harrison helped create what is now JPMorgan Chase (JPM) through a series of mergers, including a $59 billion deal with Bank One and its then chief executive, Jamie Dimon. Dimon now runs JPMorgan and has been a vocal industry defender, even as his bank's $6 billion trading loss last year highlighted the risks inherent in large, diversified financial companies.
"There's no question … that [big banks'] size and scale and leadership position, if managed well, have immense value to shareholders and immense value to the clients and customers they serve," Harrison said during a speech on Tuesday evening in New York.
"The idea of breaking up the banks is not a good one. We have the best banks in the world," he added.
His remarks implicitly repudiated comments made by Citigroup (NYSE:C) founder and former Dimon mentor Sandy Weill. Weill, who sewed together his own unwieldy megabank at Citi, stunned the industry this summer by advocating for a breakup of big banks' investment and commercial activities. Since then, Harrison has played veteran-banker defense to Weill's offense, using interviews and op-eds to defend the utility of the largest banks.
His speech Tuesday aired a list of current banking industry complaints, from the eternal debate over who was most responsible for the financial crisis to the burden of new regulations. Harrison said banks have been unfairly blamed for being "100% responsible" for the crisis; he attributed only 30% to 35% of the blame to the industry, calling "the government's involvement in the policies of housing" with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac more at fault. He also mentioned regulators, rating agencies and "the American public" as partially-guilty parties.
"In my opinion, banks were not responsible for 100% of the problem. And when we treat them like they were responsible, we get what we have today, which is more regulation, not better regulation," Harrison said. "We have capital requirements … that will make us not competitive in the U.S. with other global banks. … That is not a good thing for this country."
Harrison, 69, was accepting an award from the Museum of American Finance in downtown Manhattan on Tuesday evening. He was introduced by his longtime friend and college fraternity brother Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and co-chair of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Bowles threw his support behind the defense of big banks, telling the gala attendees that Harrison "recognized early on the need for more consolidation in the financial services industry."
Financial consolidation was a dominant theme of the evening. Bowles was introduced by NYSE Euronext CEO Duncan Niederauer, who last month agreed to sell the company to IntercontinentalExchange. Niederauer, who is expected to become president of the combined company, referred to himself as the New York Stock Exchange's director, "at least for the time being."
Bowles also praised Dimon, implicitly defending the current JPMorgan Chase CEO against some of the criticisms he has faced since last spring's London Whale trading losses came to light.
"If you ask Bill Harrison what his greatest accomplishment was, what his greatest acquisition was, he'd tell you Bank One, because that acquisition brought JPMorgan the leader that Bill knew it needed to achieve its potential and success," Bowles said. "Bill knew that Jamie was the right person to lead JPMorgan in the 21st century."
The museum organized the gala to present Harrison with its John C. Whitehead Award for distinguished public service and financial leadership. Previous recipients included former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who favors the separation of big banks' trading and lending activities. But a live debate on the issue was averted: though Volcker was on the gala committee, he was unable to attend the event, a museum spokeswoman said.