Wall Street Titan

Jamie Dimon: 'As Strong as the Rock of Gibraltar'

jamie dimon_Tobias Everke
JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in his New York office.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the only major bank CEO still in his post since the financial crisis, Jamie Dimon has played a key voice in the revival of Wall Street in recent years.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Jamie Dimon has led JP Morgan since 2006 and has been part of its top management team since 2004.
    • JP Morgan is expected to earn more than $20 billion this year – more than any other bank.
    • Mr. Dimon, who is from New York, underwent eight months of chemotherapy treatment last year for cancer.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

He’s the longest surviving executive on Wall Street. Jamie Dimon has led JPMorgan since 2006, a position he took over after two years as a member of the top management team. Before that he led Bank One, which was taken over by JPMorgan in 2004.

Mr. Dimon hasn’t just survived the 2008 financial crisis, but also the billions of dollars in costs the bank has faced as a consequence of the crisis and other legal scandals.

JP Morgan played a critical role in the financial turmoil. The bank aided the U.S. government’s crisis management by snapping up Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual – a move Mr. Dimon, in this exclusive interview, now labels a “mistake.”

Mr. Dimon was born in New York of a family of immigrants from Greece. He is Jewish, married and has three daughters. In the last year, cancer forced him to undergo eight months of chemotherapy. He says the experience hasn’t changed his management style, but shown him that nobody is “invulnerable.”

“I live more deliberately,” he added.

Politically, Mr. Dimon has long been a supporter of the Democrats. He caused a stir earlier this year by saying he would be willing to pay higher taxes – a comment he repeated in our interview. Compared to many of his Wall Street colleagues, he is never shy with his opinions.

The full interview is below. You can also read a summary.

Mr. Dimon, you will be visiting Germany next week. Growth in Europe is weak, the euro has fallen significantly in value and the continent must now also handle the historic refugee crisis. How concerned are you about the situation here?

The monetary union has proven difficult, but there is no way back. My impression is that the politicians have the will to complete the unification of Europe, for which there are still good reasons. Germany has done an excellent job under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hasn’t the German government forced an austerity policy on other states that is too tough?

No. It is a very difficult task to find the right mix between fiscal consolidation, reforms and social policies. The issues are closely interrelated. In the case of Greece, it was important to ensure greater discipline in state finances. If Germany will not ensure that, who will? The refugee crisis is tragic and makes the economic recovery in Europe even more difficult.

What do you consider more dangerous for Europe, the debt crisis or the refugee crisis?

In the long run, the refugee crisis. It can have unpredictable consequences. The debt crisis is manageable, all necessary tools to deal with it are available, politics just needs to apply them. Coping with the refugee crisis is much more complex. There are many sides to this challenge, including infrastructure and humanitarian angles. There is no convincing plan yet for how to limit the flow of refugees and to integrate all these people.

jp morgan hq_reuters
The headquarters of JP Morgan Chase & Co in New York City. Source: Reuters

 

Was it right for Chancellor Merkel to say the right of asylum has no limit? That all asylum seekers may come?

I cannot judge that. I can only hope that the Europeans stick together and understand that they play an important role in the Middle East. NATO and the trans-Atlantic relationships should be strengthened. The West must act with more foresight.

Has the European Central Bank (ECB) contributed well to holding Europe together?

I think it has done a good job. But it cannot solve the geopolitical problems. I think generally that central banks cannot compensate for the shortcomings of politics.

Is that also true for the Federal Reserve in the United States?

It generally applies to central banks. The expectations for central bankers to keep the economy going are far too high. Instead governments need to implement reasonable finance, trade and immigration policies, build up infrastructure and invest in education.

The Fed and the ECB are moving in different directions. Do you worry about that?

No, they are operating under different economic conditions. The United States is becoming stronger and stronger economically. The monetary policy has to be tightened in that respect.

So far, the Fed hasn’t dared to raise interest rates because of some setbacks in the labor market. Is the Fed too hesitant? 

The exact timing is not that important, but I believe a normalization of monetary policy is. To the end, this is about normalizing and not tightening. Furthermore, the U.S. economy is strong. The U.S. has created 10 million additional jobs, and consumer spending is up, therefore we are close to the right time now to raise interest rates. In the end, this step is likely to reduce uncertainty rather than increase it.

A rise in U.S. interest rates increases pressure on the ECB to also raise interest rates eventually. How long can the tensions last?

In this regard, I am relaxed. The ECB is in a different situation. Europe’s growth is still too weak for an interest-rate increase. But when Europe has gotten far enough, the ECB will also normalize its monetary policy.

Jamie Dimon thinks the refugee crisis is more dangerous for Europe in the long run than the debt crisis.

How big are the risks posed by China?

China’s economy was growing at 10 percent per year for 20 years – this is the only nation that has ever achieved such a high growth rate over such a long period of time. Today China is growing by six percent, but from a much higher base. With an economy of $11 trillion we are talking about $660 billion, larger than many countries. The commodity producers suffer from the changes in China, but if China continues to grow by six percent for the next ten years, even with some bumps in the road, that would be very positive.

The turbulences in the Chinese equity markets haven’t worried you?

This is a sign that China has gradually become an economically developed country. If you talk to companies in the consumer sector in China – business is going well.

How convincing is the reform process the government in Beijing has initiated?

All reforms are going in the direction of a free-market economy. Sometimes they have paused the reform process, but they never move backwards.

Experts fear a gigantic debt problem in China, because there have been many investments that didn’t make any sense.

For decades, the government in Beijing has managed the country’s finances well. Their political leaders think long term, they are strong and well-trained. Over the next few years the picture may change: You cannot have a developed free-market economy long term that is controlled by the government.

Should China open its financial sector more quickly?

The Chinese need a functioning bond market, as well as private equity. Ultimately, it has to be the market that decides where investments are made, and not the government.

 

Steadily Higher Profits-01 (2)

 

So, for the foreseeable future, China remains an attractive investment destination for JP Morgan?

Definitely. It may very well be the case that in 20 years from now, 20 percent of the global conglomerates will be based there.

Which business avenues are you pursuing in China?

We are focused on investment banking, corporate banking and asset management. The big corporations and major banks there are becoming more international now. So far, they prefer Europe over the U.S., because they find a friendlier environment there.

Are China’s banks serious competitors for JP Morgan?

Not yet outside of their country, but we are watching them. Similarly to us in the U.S., they have a very large domestic market, which is a good basis for an international expansion. ICBC has a global presence now, for example in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf. In London, I believe they bought a trading company. For the big Chinese banks, they will need to serve their clients everywhere in the world.  Right now, the major U.S. banks have this ability.

What is your strategy to meet this competition?

We also want to grow globally if it helps our clients. We are nothing without our clients. Because of our large network we have a good position, and that will stay that way for the next 20 years. And I am telling the U.S. government: Let American firms meet this competition.

However, the global economy’s growth slowed down, because Europe is weakening, China is weakening and as a result, some emerging markets are as well.

The world economy is still growing by 3 percent. We would prefer more, but that’s not too bad. With that growth rate, you can keep growing in the banking business.

jamie dimon_Tobias Everke_2
Source: Tobias Everke for Handelsblatt

 

How important are trans-Atlantic trade agreements from your point of view?

It is extremely important! In general, trade agreements are good for the economy and they create jobs. I support not only the trans-Pacific agreement TPP, I’m also a big proponent of the trans-Atlantic agreement. Don’t forget that European countries and the U.S. have a common cultural background. That applies also to values ​​and ethical standards. Both continents should collaborate very closely in the world. It is surely legitimate to say there will also be someone who is affected negatively by such an agreement. And for those cases, assistance should be available. But many more people will benefit from the agreement, which is why it is so important.

Since the peak of the financial crisis, seven years have passed. Are the markets now sufficiently regulated? Should the supervisors stop adopting more and more regulations?

Let me clarify one thing: I have nothing against good regulation. I am convinced that we need good regulation. You also will agree that good journalism requires a good editor to oversee the work. I believe that most of the banks today, in the U.S. even more than in Europe, are much better equipped against crises because of the higher capital and liquidity requirements. The focus should be on a good regulation, and not just more new rules.

Your bank is criticized in the public, particularly because of the size. The concern is not unjustified, that, in the event of a crisis, you would have to be saved with taxpayer’s money.

JP Morgan never needed the government’s money during the financial crisis. On the contrary, with Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual we even adopted two failing financial institutions at the request of the government.

Would you do that again?

No! Helping the U.S. government by rescuing these institutions has brought us a lot of legal trouble. One legal action after another was brought against us. That was my mistake as CEO; that I will not repeat.

But such a large banking group as JP Morgan is more difficult to control and protect, for example, against billions in losses through bad speculations, as happened in London several years ago.

Our size benefits our clients around the world. A small bank cannot afford what we can offer. Do we make mistakes? Yes, we do, the same as other large and small companies in all kinds of other industries too. Our company and our owners were harmed by our London-related losses, not clients or taxpayers, and our company still realized good profits overall. And we have been punished for it – and that was justified.

There are new rules intended to make it possible for banks to be liquidated in the event of a crisis without states having to bail them out. Do you think that these will actually work?

I believe they will. Our bank is as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar. We have $700 billion in loans, a further $440 billion reserves at the Fed and $500 billion of equity and long-term refinancing.

If you talk to companies in the consumer sector in China – business is going well.

Banks are indeed safer today than at the time of the financial crisis. But the question is whether the resolution of a bank would be possible without damage in the event that it still gets into trouble.

Under the new rules, when finalized, the supervisors will be able to take over the bank in such an event, cover the losses with the existing capital and unwind the company. In my opinion this can very well be done.

Is the leverage ratio – demanding a loan-equity ratio regardless of the risks – a good regulatory tool?

I always say that we have three or four belts around our waist and another three to four suspenders on top. There is nothing to complain about the leverage ratio in general. There are only a few small technical things one has to consider when it comes to the question of how to apply it, for example how it makes banks less able to support the money market during times of stress. And I ask myself: Is this really what the regulators had intended?

And what is your answer?

I’ll leave this with the supervisors. What is clear: JP Morgan will be able to navigate the new environment. But sometimes you simply see unintended consequences that are following new regulations.

For the public, the banks are at the center of the large, global crisis. Nevertheless, bank managers have gotten out with high severance packages, which have also angered me.

You have criticized the ban on proprietary trading by the so-called Volcker Rule in the United States. Why? Especially in proprietary trading, many deals were happening in a legal grey area.

We have to live with this rule now. It is fine that we are not allowed to continue proprietary trading anymore. I just hope this does not prevent us from performing some of the basic functions of an investment bank, such as helping to find buyers and sellers for our clients’ securities. The law in the Volcker Rule is so vague that regulators had a hard time implementing it. We need well-functioning markets, where buyers and sellers meet and get a good price. And remember, there are markets for eggs, chicken, cotton, wood, iron ore … Even top Democrats, regulators and government leaders were against the Volcker Rule. So, it was not only the banks.

Is the business model of a global universal bank, which combines retail banking and the investment banking under one roof, still the right one after all this new regulation?

I don’t like the term “universal bank.”  Large, diversified banks like JP Morgan can be more stable, because we are present in several areas. A quarter of our business as an investment bank in the United States comes from our commercial banking business. The divisions support each other. You will often have a person who is a private client and at the same time a commercial client with their company. Especially our clients benefit from that. They are, as surveys show, more satisfied with us than ever before.

What is the next big challenge for banks?

To navigate through all the new rules. We will handle that, but it is a big task. Many do not realize: It touches every single system that we have. And there are thousands of new rules. Systems must be reprogramed, employees need to be trained. Resolution recovery documents can be 150,000 pages long. And at the same time our clients need to be satisfied too.

How great is the threat from new financial technology (fintech) companies?

Technology has always been very important for banks. We have 20 million customers who use their smartphone for banking transactions. We need to use technology to provide our customers with a better service. In October, we announced a smartphone payment system for our U.S. retail customers across 94 million credit, debit and pre-paid card accounts. Basically it’s our own digital wallet. It’s getting great reviews because it works on any smart phone. Our goal is to be better, faster, cheaper, and accessible for our customers at any time.

Experts predict a future in which you can do financial transactions without a bank. Do you think this is realistic?

Not completely. Most of our customers are still coming into the branch. To open accounts, deposit money. Small businesses bring their day’s earnings. And there is great need for advice, for example when it comes to mortgages or corporate loans, and investment consulting. There are some things that customers simply prefer to talk about in person. Sure, the role of branches is likely to change. We see that the number of mobile transactions is increasing rapidly, while the number of transactions in the branches is slowly decreasing. A pure internet bank however cannot offer all the services that we do.

 

jamie dimon_Tobias Everke_3
Source: Tobias Everke for Handelsblatt

 

Your customers are satisfied, as you like to highlight, though banks have a bad image in the public. How come?

I understand the general anger. We had a large, global crisis, and the main parties involved were in the financial sector and in Washington. For the public, the banks are at the center. Nevertheless, bank managers have gotten out with high severance packages, which have also angered me.

Barclays’ new boss Jes Staley just said: ‘Trust is the most important asset for a bank’. Do you agree?

First, let me say that I have called Jes this morning to wish him all the best for his new job. I think you have to earn trust, because you want to do the right thing – every day, with clients around the world. I think our firm’s culture is very good; we work incredibly hard to do the right things. But that doesn’t mean that something bad cannot also happen at our firm as well. You can also gain trust by admitting errors and fixing them, instead of trying to sweep them under the rug.

Do you have the trust of your clients?

Our clients almost always come back to us. If they did not trust us – believe me – this would not be the case. I think some companies have a poorer corporate culture than others. And some banks tolerated bad behavior more than others. You cannot lump all together. And also we must say that things have gone wrong in some areas and we should have done better. We implemented better controls, so we do not repeat the mistakes.

In the U.S. as well as in Germany there is a discussion of ethics in the financial world. It seems even the best controls sometimes do not help, if the staff does not behave ethically correctly.

I agree. But I have read about unethical behavior in many institutions around the world. This is no justification. More important however is the question how a company deals with wrongdoing. Is the problem admitted and corrected? I very much hope that banks can win the trust back one day and that people say: If in some cases something goes wrong at JP Morgan, and it is not something that is systemic or happens often, then those people responsible will be punished immediately, the regulators will be informed and, if necessary, penalties will be paid. And that should apply to everyone. And sure: If errors have occurred repeatedly, the management has not bothered and the mistakes were systemic, then even larger penalties should be imposed. Banks were part of the problem, so I understand that people are especially critical with banks.

Should more bankers have gone to jail after the financial crisis? Many have complained back then that the shareholders were punished but not the responsible players.

I think this is true. If someone has broken a law, they should go to jail for that! But you cannot simply say: Bankers need to go to jail. The Justice Department should punish the perpetrators and if their employer was guilty as well, then the company should also be held accountable. The other question is: Are the fines in proportion to the misdeed.

Are they?

I think that the misdeed and the punishment should be in proportion. Just because people are upset, you just cannot have unlimited rope when setting the amount of penalties.

Mr. Dimon said if you prohibit Wall Street bankers to get top positions in the government , you will exclude many competent people.

You are an avowed Democrat, and the election campaign is in full swing. What do you expect from the new U.S. president?

Whoever it will be, I would wish for us all to treat each other with more respect. And by this I mean politicians, managers and the civil society. America needs a new form of collaboration. By this, we could reach much more than by putting the blame on each other. Germany is a good role model for that.

What do you mean by that?

For example when you look at the dual education system in Germany. Schools are working together with companies to create degrees that qualify graduates for jobs. This only works in cooperation. We can solve all our problems, if we want to. And this doesn’t depend on someone being a Democrat or a Republican.

Is there any candidate you are especially afraid of?

No. At the moment, I’m observing this calmly.

The growing income inequality in the United States will play a major role during the election campaign. What does the J.P. Morgan CEO, who earned $20 million last year, have to say about that?

Income inequality in the United States and around the world is terrible, and we must all work together to help address it.  Business, government, Democrats, Republicans, communities – we must all set aside our differences and collaborate to develop strong education and skills initiatives, a humane immigration policy, infrastructure programs, and sound fiscal policy to help bring people up and to strengthen our economy.  It’s a national disgrace and a tragedy that 40 percent of our inner city youth do not graduate from high school. If the wealthy are taxed more to achieve these goals, that’s fine with me.

In the U.S., there’s a tradition that bank CEOs move into politics at some point. Would that be something for you?

I don’t think that I will still live to see that another Wall Street banker gets a top position in the government. The political climate is still too charged after the financial crisis for that. But if you prohibit this move, you will exclude many competent people. At the same time, one also has to say: Just because you are a good CEO doesn’t mean you would make a good finance minister or president. However, for me personally, this would not be the right thing either way. I’m simply not the type for that.

You have been at the top of J.P. Morgan for 10 years now, but you have only become a billionaire in June. What’s your daily motivation to go to work?

Money has never been my motivation. I love what I do. And when we make sure that this is a good bank, we help our clients, our employees, our country, we can engage better philanthropically, invest more in Corporate Social Responsibility. We have philanthropic projects in Germany to support disadvantaged young people get into work or job training. This is the best that I can do for the community. This is my contribution and if I can do this relatively well, this satisfies me.

You are one of only a few bank CEOs who are still in their job after the financial crisis. Have there been moments when you wanted to pack in and leave?

Once in a while on a Friday. And then on Mondays I would go to the office motivated again – I simply can’t spend my life playing golf. I like what I do. I meet interesting people. I will soon fly to Germany and London, I just got back from Saudi Arabia, India and Hong Kong, and everywhere clients tell us that they want to work even closer with us. Hedge funds have fled during the crisis same as others. Who was there for the clients also in tough times? We – and by that I also mean Deutsche Bank and many others – have provided trillions in credit in times when there wasn’t even a market. You could ask: Why are we lending money to our clients for LIBOR plus 200 basis points when the market wouldn’t give them any money at all? Because they are clients. And because we have a long-term relationship with them. That’s by the way also something a lot of our German clients are saying.

dimon_ with hb staff_hb
Co-editor in chief of Handelsblatt Sven Afhüppe, Jamie Dimon, Handelsblatt New Correspondents Frank Wiebe and Astrid Dörner (from left to right). Source: Tobias Everke for Handelsblatt

 

Many banking CEOs lost their job during the crisis. Joseph Ackermann is no longer the head of Deutsche Bank. Bob Diamond had to leave Barclays. How did you manage to stay at the top?

I don’t want to speculate on others, and I am privileged to lead our company. We never had losses during the crisis. We did not need any bailout money from the government. We always had good returns. And we are trying to work with all the regulators around the world as best as possible. That may not always work out. But every day I try my best –it’s a huge responsibility because so many people and communities depend on us being healthy and vibrant.

How important is power to you?

Not important. I could easily do without power. You may remember that I got fired at Ctigroup. I was in a leading position at one of the major banks and from one day to the other I had nothing to do. And I was fine. Sure, I missed the camaraderie atmosphere and the intellectual challenge. But I was fine.

You defeated throat cancer last year. In what way has the disease changed you?

Cancer is a scary disease. You don’t any longer believe yourself to be invulnerable. When people ask, ‘What does the future hold?’ I think: I hope I can witness that. There’s a woman who wrote a wonderful article in the New York Times about this. She has also conquered cancer and says that you live more deliberately. I agree. I was so touched, I even called her. I live more deliberately. I want to end the week with the thought that it has been a good week. I want my encounters with other people to be meaningful. Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, was recently diagnosed with cancer. He is a good friend of mine, and I call him every week to hear how he’s doing. But the cancer has neither changed myself personally nor my management style. My value system is also still the same. If you had asked me before the diagnosis what my priorities are, I would have said: Family first. Then country and humanity. And then our firm. That is my contribution. And if I do it well, I can help our employees, our communities and hospitals, and many many others.

Your motivation is remarkable. You could have also said that your private life is now more important and that someone else should lead the bank.

What am I supposed to do the whole day? I have a wonderful family including wonderful daughters. We see each other regularly; have dinner together every Sunday night. I read five newspapers every morning. And when I’m done, it’s eight a clock in the morning. And what am I supposed to do with the rest of the day?

Isn’t there anything else that you like?

I like to teach. But I don’t want to do that full time. I’d love to write opinion pieces more often, but not full time either. I might invest in young companies, but only, because I like it. What I like most is doing my job. Even when I was ill and really felt sick, I was at the bank.

Why?
I simply preferred sometimes to be in the office interacting with interesting people and challenges instead of watching TV at home. I had a few conversations, made a few calls, wrote a few letters. I even attended meetings. But because my immune system was so weak, anyone who only had a cough had to sit at the far end of the room.

Do you have dreams? Sail around the world? Write a book?

After Citigroup, during the time that I was away I made a list of exactly these things. And I checked almost all of them. Except for climbing the Kilimanjaro. I travelled across the country on my own. I started to box. I visited my brother in Denmark. I travelled Europe together with my kids for six weeks. But I tell you honestly: After a while, I was just bored.

You are urging young employees not only to live for work but also care about their health. How does that fit with your life style?

Yes, that is very important. Write that down! A company can offer a gym membership and offer support when someone needs emotional assistance. However, I always say: It is your responsibility to take care of your spirit, your body, your mind, your soul, family and friends. Everybody simply has to put that on their agenda.

Interesting to hear that from a banker. On Wall Street you hear about 90 hour weeks and night shifts so often.

I know that some think we are tough. People want to work hard for our clients and deliver a good product. But we want our employees to never forget to take care of themselves and to not neglect their private life.

Is that a new approach for you?

No, I haven’t changed since I was eight. And when an employee asks me for my advice, I’ll tell them what is the right thing for them, and not what is the right thing for the firm. At the end of the day, it is their life, not ours.

However, with 250.000 employees, you can’t always make sure every individual’s wishes are considered. You also have to make sure that the work gets done!

Sure. I cannot manage every employee. However, if I find out one has behaved improperly or unfairly, you can imagine the phone call they would get from me!

 

The interview was conducted by Sven Afhüppe, Astrid Dörner and Frank Wiebe. Mr. Afhüppe is co-editor in chief of Handelsblatt. Ms. Dörner covering finance topics from New York. Mr. Wiebe is also a New York correspondent for Handelsblatt, covering finance policies. To contact the authors: afhueppe@handelsblatt.com, adoerner@handelsblatt.com and wiebe@handelsblatt.com

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!