When the going gets rough, you find out who your friends are. In Jamie Dimon's case, they're legion. He's recently been endorsed by, among others: Spencer Bachus (chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services), Richard Fisher (CEO of the Dallas Fed) and even Brian Moynihan (his competitor).
President Obama also picked this time, a few days after the JPMorgan (JPM) loss was announced, to pronounce Jamie "One of our smartest bankers."
The president implies that he values smarts and fancies himself a keen judge of intelligence. If so, it would have been more useful for him to identify our smartest senator or cabinet member, or the world's smartest head of government. Unlike banking, he knows something about these other jobs. Given this and what he's been saying about Mitt Romney, it looks like Obama considers brilliance important in business, but irrelevant in government.
Obama's accolade might even dissuade customers from doing business with our smartest banker. They could reasonably expect Jamie to use his insights, acumen and toughness to rip them off. And if he's widely praised as the smartest, can you imagine this going to his head, so that he stretched rules and took crazy risks?
Judging by their accomplishments — and these days, just staying out of trouble is an exceptional achievement for a large bank — John Stumpf and Richard Davis must be very, very smart. However, Stumpf and Davis don't project either cleverness or toughness as the key to their success, and they're seldom praised as brilliant.
One quality they share that Jamie lacks is sound judgment. Wells reduced its CDS's by ¾, while Jamie was ballooning his. And as this newspaper recently showed, both Wells (WFC) and USBank (USB) have far more conservative securities portfolios than Jamie does. They're not bent on winning the international competition to acquire the largest volume of bad assets fastest.
One of the few subjects on which Obama and Romney agree is Jamie Dimon. Romney is even more specific than Obama in discounting Jamie's $2 billion (and counting, rapidly) loss — because, he says, taxpayers haven't (yet) lost any money. False.
When companies take losses, they pay less taxes. With foolish gambling, lower profits, hence less tax revenue, national budget deficits increase — and there is greater pressure for the rest of us to pay more. Anyone who runs a profitable company shoulders more of our collective burdens. Every loss eventually costs us.
Romney attributes Jamie's loss to a "bad decision." What decision? The loss reflects gross mismanagement, dangerously faulty processes maintained over months or years, and gambling that violates the fundamental rationale for deposit insurance.
Furthermore, if $2 billion eluded Jamie's control, maybe he has already lost far more, or will lose it under economic stress. At least, that's what the equity market is telling us. The news about the $2 billion loss was followed by a drop in JPM's stock value of $40 billion, or 25% — implying the market expects more revelations, more disasters. Who can say it won't end in a bail out?
But again, Romney was certainly right in pointing out that Jamie's $2 billion loss was a $2 billion gain "for someone else." Maybe that "someone else" included a Russian oligarch, or the Chinese government — Romney doesn't seem to care. The books balance, and Jamie has done no systemic harm that Romney can see.
Will Europeans emulate Mitt's sense of zero-sum solidarity? If Germany gives and Greece takes, it all comes out even. Shrug. Facilitating this, Geithner seems to have taught the ECB to lend trillions on bad collateral — to serve his declared priority of kicking the bomb down the road — anyway, beyond November — rendering its ultimate detonation far more destructive.
In a presidential campaign focused on who destroyed the most jobs and caused the most misery, why would both candidates take time out to praise Jamie? Obviously they think he's here to stay, a national mover and shaker, a towering and long-standing geyser of money and influence. We'll see.
Like Wells and USBank, JPMorgan didn't go broke in the crisis which began in 2007. But, Jamie became CEO only at the start of 2006, chairman a year later. The banks that failed, such as Wachovia, WaMu and Lehman, had started churning out bad mortgages much earlier than 2007. Chase hadn't.
The crisis did not break Jamie only because he didn't have time enough to make bad bets. He talked a good game while playing the very strong hand Bill Harrison had assembled before Jamie forced him out.
Andrew Kahr is a principal in Credit Builders LLC, a financial product development company, and was the founding chief executive of First Deposit, later known as Providian.