Tension escalates at annual meetings as banks wade into social issues

Register now

You could have easily mistaken JPMorgan Chase’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday for the type of testy town hall gathering that lawmakers hold with their constituents when they return home from Washington.

Held this year in Plano, Texas — in a corporate office that's home to roughly 6,000 employees — JPMorgan’s annual meeting included the usual orders of business, such as votes to approve the company’s roster of directors. But once the company opened the floor to commentary, the meeting took on a markedly heated tone.

Shareholders once again criticized JPMorgan for financing for private prisons, a big focus at last year’s meeting. They also attacked the company’s track record on environmental issues; its investments in companies with ties to government-sponsored genocide in Sudan and Syria; and even its perceived lack of attention to affordable housing issues in Plano.

At one point, Juleon Robinson, a representative from the nonprofit New Economy Project, accused the company of redlining in its hometown of New York and of failing to do enough for minority communities in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx.

“You seem like a bright young man who is highly misinformed,” Dimon said in response, outlining a host of ways the company gives back to local communities.

Annual meetings are often viewed as venues for shareholders to vent their frustrations. Dimon earlier this year went so far as to call the annual gatherings a “complete waste of time.”

But it’s hard to ignore the fact that they have become more impassioned — and, at times, more vitriolic — in recent years as bankers have begun taking a stand in the political realm.

The views and political positions of bank CEOs have taken center stage in this year's slate of annual meetings.

At Bank of America’s annual meeting, for instance, CEO Brian Moynihan spoke out about his commitment to cut its ties with certain gun makers, after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. During Wells Fargo’s annual meeting last month, the company also faced pressure from shareholders to cut its ties with the National Rifle Association.

Additionally, at JPMorgan’s annual meeting in 2017, Dimon defended his role as one of a handful of CEO advisers to President Trump. The CEO advisory council disbanded last summer, following inflammatory comments from the president about a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.

During the annual meeting Tuesday, JPMorgan was criticized for donating to the Southern Poverty Law Center following the violence in Charlottesville, in which a woman was killed after a car rammed into a crowd that was demonstrating against racial intolerance. The company at the time also made a donation to the Anti-Defamation League.

Justin Danhof, general counsel at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, described the SPLC — a nearly 50-year-old civil rights group that monitors the neo-Nazi and other extremist groups — as a “far-left activist” organization.

“SPLC is little more than a fundraising outfit that publishes its annual hate list, targeting its political enemies — mainly conservatives and Christians in this country,” Danhof said.

Danhof claimed that he had been flagged by the SPLC after appearing on a conservative radio show. He further argued that the group has been instrumental in inciting violence, and that the group associates “belief in traditional marriage” as on par with the racism espoused by the Ku Klux Klan.

“Can you explain to us investors, Mr. Dimon, why JPMorgan is funding anti-religious bigotry and the provocation of violence? And what do you have to say to the numerous conservative leaders who have been described in such hateful labels?”

JPMorgan General Counsel Stacey Friedman responded, cordially.

“We appreciate your comments, and obviously the goal of our philanthropy is,” Friedman paused for a beat, “the opposite of what you’ve laid out.”

Friedman said JPMorgan will take Danhof’s comments into consideration.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.