Abigail with attitude: Dimon’s whale sees off shareholder minnows

By:
Abigail Hofman
Published on:

I am sure Jamie Dimon considers the hoo-ha about splitting the chief executive and chairman roles at JPMorgan to be an over-reaction.


I have always thought that the pugnacious but charismatic Dimon was probably a bit too imperialistic for his own good. But he has had a remarkable crisis. And to contemplate JPMorgan without his silver locks at the helm is almost unthinkable.

This turned into a battle royal between the big beast, JPMorgan, and a few investors who managed to garner a lot of support for their stance. The minnows against the whale, you might say.

In the end, the whale won convincingly. But those shareholders say that JPMorgan missed the point: this was not a vote on Jamie’s leadership, but a vote on good governance. How can a chief executive, who also wears the chairman’s hat, effectively have the final say on the people who are there to judge his performance on behalf of shareholders?

JPMorgan’s spin machine which, lest we forget, exists to represent the company and thereby its shareholders, and not any individual, turned it into an in-out referendum on Dimon himself. But that’s not the choice JPMorgan’s investors should have been given.

Some of those shareholders also wanted three main board directors to resign: David Cote, James Crown and Ellen Futter. Their endorsement was far less overwhelming; all three received less than 60% approval.

Years ago, I had identified that there were problems bubbling under the surface at JPMorgan. In July 2009, I wrote a column criticizing the make-up of the JPMorgan board and stated: “I find the JPMorgan board intriguing in that, although the members are impressive in their respective fields, few have in-depth financial expertise... I believe the world is moving to a situation where bank boards will be populated by accountants, financiers or regulators. JPMorgan is doing well today, but should it stumble, the board will be scrutinized.”

Fast forward four years, and I looked again at the JPMorgan board. I’m not sure if I was horrified, surprised or amused to see that the board, which I had considered weak verging on the ineffectual in 2009, was virtually the same. The bank has paid lip service to concerns that the board does not have enough financial expertise by adding Timothy Flynn, the former chairman of KPMG International, and James Bell, a former CFO of Boeing.

Other members of the board, however, raise a lot of red flags. Consider Crown, who has been a JPMorgan board member since 1991 and is president of Henry Crown and Company, a private investment company. Or Futter, a board member since 1997 who is president of the American Museum of Natural History. Futter’s participation on the JPMorgan risk policy committee is bound to rile shareholder activists. Futter may be a good lawyer and passionate about American culture, but is this the correct background to enable her to grapple with the nuances of complex financial products? The fact that JPMorgan lost over $6 billion last year from out-of-control proprietary trading shows that risk was not properly managed at the bank. Consequently, the whole risk committee of the board should have resigned.

JPMorgan’s share price is cresting towards the highs it enjoyed before the financial crisis. If shareholders want to see these heady peaks hold, they need to reinforce the message to executives that corporate governance must improve. I assume Jamie tap dances around the current JPMorgan board. A harsher way of putting it might be to say they are his lapdogs. And given that Dimon is both chairman and CEO, the whole organization seems a bit too Dimon-focused, The man is 57, highly talented, but a bit of a prima donna. Eventually, he will step down and the lack of succession planning makes the institution vulnerable. Imperial CEOs have a tendency to fall to earth eventually.

Bloomberg 'the JPMorgan of the financial media'

People we love to hate: politicians, estate agents and, of course, journalists. I have noticed that whenever a journalist errs, there is uproar. It’s almost as if other members of the media rush to rejoice at their rival’s funeral.

Think about the scathing criticism of Rebekah Brooks, the tempestuous, red-headed editor of the News of the World after it emerged that reporters at the paper had been phone-hacking. The tentacles of this scandal entrapped even Rupert Murdoch, the redoubtable chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, the group that owned the News of the World.

A parliamentary committee investigation ensued, as well as a full-blown UK judicial inquiry (the Leveson Inquiry) into the culture, ethics and practices of the press. The cost to taxpayers of the inquiry, which concluded last July, was approximately £5.6 million. That seems a remarkably low fee for a public inquiry that lasted for months and brought in a cast of hundreds, compared with the extraordinary £17 million paid by Barclays for its Salz review.

Whether it’s £5 million or £17 million, such sums would be pocket money for Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, the news service and financial data company. However, Bloomberg might ruefully contemplate that a pristine reputation counts for more than billions in the bank.

In mid-May, the financial services sector was shaken to discover that there had been a breach of Chinese walls at Bloomberg. For many years, it seems, Bloomberg reporters had been allowed to access subscribers’ confidential terminal functions. Oh dear.

As we all know it is the perception of impropriety, not the impropriety itself, that damages.

Part of me wonders whether the uproar is justified. There’s a definite tinge of the comeuppance in the reaction. “Bloomberg likes to present its journalist as being better and brighter than the rest and has a holier-than-thou attitude,” says one source. “They’re like the JPMorgan of the financial media in that respect. And look at how Jamie Dimon’s competitors are sniggering at his current difficulties.”