The media has always loved Jamie Dimon. After all, he turned around Bank One Corp., kept J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. profitable through one of the worst financial crises in history and helped the government save Bear Stearns Cos. and Washington Mutual from oblivion. And he did it all after being cast out of Citigroup by his longtime father figure and mentor, the now-reviled Sandy Weill. How wonderfully Shakespearean.
These days, of course, loving a banker is no easy task -- even one who might remind you of Hamlet and who started to sound the alarm on subprime mortgages before his rivals. After being severely chastised for failing to call the bubble because it was too busy cozying up to its pinstriped sources, the media now takes it on faith that pretty much all bankers -- except those who toil at the Bailey-esque small bank down the street -- are to blame for our economic woes. The profession's notoriety is so complete that John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker, deemed much of what investment bankers do as "socially worthless."
But Dimon's reputation remains intact, perhaps even enhanced, as evidenced by his recent gracing of the cover of the New York Times Magazine, which dubbed him "America's Least-Hated Banker." That headline might be ambiguous, but the accompanying story, by Roger Lowenstein, is not. Like much of the Dimon hagiography that preceded it, the piece celebrates Dimon's famous aversion to risk, his immersion in details, his passion for organization and his blunt-talking ways. And while it allows that Americans now display "a sort of Jacksonian animosity toward big financial institutions," it notes that Dimon is the exception to this rule, mostly because he kept J.P. Morgan, and every business he has ever run, out of serious danger.
But is it really that simple? Is what Lowenstein calls Dimon's "radar for trouble" enough to keep him on the right side of a media that routinely calls for a Wall Street CEO perp walk? "The country is deeply divided over the proper role, and the size, of banks, and nothing epitomizes these tensions like the narrative of Jamie Dimon," the piece intones. But Dimon doesn't just epitomize these "tensions," he epitomizes much of what the country dislikes about big banks. In fact, the very virtues the press constantly praises in Dimon -- his cost cutting, his wonkiness, his blunt speech, his faith in the virtue of banking behemoths -- we find reprehensible in everyone else, including, most strikingly, his old mentor, Weill.
Indeed, in the Times piece, when Dimon spouts his Wal-Mart theory of banking -- that just as people want to buy lettuce and TVs under one roof they want to visit one financial institution for credit cards and mortgages -- an impressed Lowenstein writes that "few people think of banks this way." Really? Weill thought about and talked about banks that way constantly, as did any number of proponents of so-called supermarket banking -- an idea that, thanks to the crisis, has fallen into ill repute. But when uttered by Dimon, the concept is treated as not just novel, but fascinating. "It is an intriguing comparison," Lowenstein writes of likening Chase to Wal-Mart. "This is how Dimon wants to be seen -- as a retailer with 5,200 branches nationwide whose products happen to be financial services."
That's also how Weill wanted to be seen, but it didn't quite work out for him as Citi grew too large and discombobulated to be effectively managed. The story does not discuss that, however, choosing instead to boil down Citi's myriad problems to "hubris" and to Weill's failure to name a capable successor -- someone like Dimon, we assume.
So far, things are working out for Dimon, whom Lowenstein describes as "trim" and somewhat "boyish" with "a puckish, faintly suppressed grin" -- features that surely help bolster his reputation almost as much as J.P. Morgan's balance sheet. Contrast this to how Lowenstein portrayed Weill in an August 2000 cover story, also for the Times magazine: The then-Citi CEO was described as "superficially ordinary," "moderately articulate," "lacking in grace," "exploding" and "screaming." (The story was so unflattering to Weill, who was then at his peak, that it prompted the New York Observer to wonder about anti-Semitism.) But for all of Dimon's success, is it still enough to grant him an exception to the media's general disdain for big bank CEOs? After all, he's not going to run J.P. Morgan forever. And, like any mere mortal, past performance is no guarantee of future success.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.
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