Dimon Should Embrace Big Bank Breakups
The anger against the country's biggest banks is ready to boil over, Harris Simmons, the chairman and chief executive of Zions Bancorp., warned Wednesday.March 14
Breaking up big banks as way to score our pound of flesh post-financial crisis could result in increased unemployment, higher credit costs for all and a transfer of risk from banks to lightly regulated shadow financial institutions.March 19
There's one big trade that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon hasn't yet explored: supporting the breakup of “Too Big to Fail” financial institutions.
By advocating a breakup of TBTF institutions, Dimon can put his name on reform and reinvent himself as an advocate of this increasingly popular sentiment. This move is not about making money; it's about legacy, particularly public legacy. The trick is not to hedge, not to be wishy-washy and grudgingly acquiescent to the idea of breaking up JPMorgan Chase and other large financial institutions. It is to be proactive, to do a complete 180 and champion this policy.
Dimon can demonstrate that, during turbulent times, he can rise above the mediocrity of doing what's minimally required, evading questions and redefining a "hedge" and, instead, become a leader that the financial industry and the public needs. Distracted by petty battles with regulators and legislators, Dimon fails to recognize that he stands within the grasp of an elegant solution where he doesn't have to spend his days studying legal intricacies of "prop" trades vs. "market making" trades.
Breaking up the banks can be a profitable thing to do. A case had been made by Robert Lenzner of Forbes to break the banks into three parts: asset management, consumer banking and wholesale lending, each with its own regulator and stock trading separately. The stock valuations for each of the three new, more transparent and thus easier-to-evaluate spinoffs can be greater than the current valuation of an opaque behemoth. Both depositors and shareholders will receive what they originally bargained for: security and yield respectively.
Moreover, breaking up TBTF firms has also become a bipartisan issue. There's a bill currently in the Senate sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.). "Breaking up big banks" has resonance among liberals and conservatives, the Occupy and Tea Party movements, rich and poor. Once both sides of the aisle are equally dismayed and pressed by their constituents to address the issue, it will persist in public discourse regardless of the amount of money and number of lobbyists working to make it go away. A smart agent like Dimon would jump on the bandwagon of reform rather than doggedly defend an institutional structure that is unpopular, dangerous, hard to value, impossible to manage and ultimately unsustainable.
For Dimon personally, advocating a breakup is a limited downside/unlimited upside kind of trade. The downside is that, if reform fails, he will end up exactly where he is right now – running a TBTF institution and dodging regulators. The upside is that he will transform himself into an elder statesman, an industry leader.
For guys like Dimon, at the top of their game, when money is secondary, the most gratifying accomplishment is winning the next trade in some spectacular and unorthodox manner. This is why few individuals retire from Wall Street once they are set monetarily and have ascended to a powerful platform. Retiring to the Caribbean with a drink in hand is so lame, so defeatist. It's all about the next trade, each more breathtaking than the last one. Reform is the name of this new game.
Finally, embracing megabank breakups is a sure pathway to cementing a long-lasting public legacy and a compelling story of redemption. A character that goes through a transformation is much more endearing to the American audience than a two-dimensional bad or good guy. There's a romantic sentiment on Wall Street that everyone who got there is a "scrappy kid from Brooklyn" who fought the odds and pulled himself by the bootstraps. Dimon and even Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs were those kids one day. But they're not a ragtag team of scrappy kids taking on the Establishment anymore. Now, they are the Establishment.
And what now, what's the next move? At this point how many charities can one sponsor, how many times can one mingle at Davos? How many star athletes can one befriend? Years on Wall Street can distort one's perspective of the world outside to such a degree that anything with the word "public" in it, such as "public advocacy", is a subject of ridicule, of witty remarks and not a worthy next endeavor to explore. But lasting public legacy is the perfect redemption opportunity, the ultimate character building exercise, the Holy Grail of all trades. The greatest trade of all is not about money.
In the meantime, we, the public, are unprotected from the actions of overly ambitious traders and at the mercy of circumstance. Admittedly, there's a palpable lack of effective tools to address this problem. Even under Dodd-Frank, if you take into account all the exemptions, exceptions and definitions, the London Whale trade would have been legal. Even if the regulatory agencies get up to speed on the next Wall Street product (a tall order), they will never be able to do the proper work on a tight budget.
Dimon's support on bank breakups could spark an industry transformation. To embrace such change is both good politics and good policy – a rare combination that is too foolish to let go unexploited. The public demands reform, politicians of both parties are behind it and the timing is ripe. If Dimon were to champion financial reform, he will help put the entire financial industry on the path to recovery. If he doesn't, Dimon will help prove Wall Street deserves its bad reputation.
Katya Grishakova left the financial industry after spending more than a decade at various Wall Street firms. She is now a board member of ACT NOW, a New York progressive organization.