Posted on Wednesday, December 8, 2010
I don't hate Jamie Dimon. He's smart and hard-working, and undoubtedly wants to believe that his work contributes to society. But his bank continues to harm millions of Americans, and his political activism is helping an entire industry pilfer and endanger the economy.
Now he's started to publicly express feelings of hurt and rejectedness, and therapists say such feelings may reflect a deep inner guilt. That would make sense. Fortunately, there's a way out, and we have a six-step program designed to heal Mr. Dimon's Inner Banker - and help save the economy.
Dimon's hardly the type who'd seem to need tea and sympathy.Yet this weekend's New York Times profile by Roger Lowenstein portrays him as one of that strange new class of business leader that might be called Emo Executives. They're aggressive and hugely successful businesspeople who pause in their busy lives just long enough to channel their inner child - but not long enough to interrupt the outer adult as he wreaks economic havoc.
Dimon joins a cohort of angst-ridden megamillionaires that already includes Mort Zuckerman, Daniel Loeb, some anonymous Wall Street kvetcher, the Chicago mercantile traders whose collective howl led to the Tea Party, and the invisible "hive mind" of executives who poured their hearts out to a sympathetic Fareed Zakaria.
(What's Emo? It's rock music from the nineties that focused on the singer's feelings. Where have you been?)
The Walking Wounded
The temptation to mock comes easily, and the picture of self-pitying millionaires oblivious to the millions they've made jobless isn't pretty. Yet personal profiles like the Times piece can be surprisingly effective in our personality-driven celebrity culture, especially among opinion leaders. The emo angle keeps drawing in savvy business writers like Lowenstein and Zakaria, who then bring a lot of other people along with them.
Corporate America has just had a stellar quarter, and that's after Dimon said "corporate America is in very, very, very, very, very good shape." And yet we're being told the President has to do even more to capitulate to executives who, like Jamie Dimon, feel "bullied."
I resent that, Suh!
Dimon resents the fact that President Obama called bankers "fat cats" - which seemed to be a transparent nod to the public mood, not an expression of personal disdain. Dimon's reported response? "President Lincoln could have denigrated all Southerners. He didn't." (A brief editorial note: In a nation wracked with unemployment, it may not be wise to portray yourself as a plantation owner who was kindlier to his field hands than most and therefore feels his honor has been sullied.)
America has a message for all of these wounded executives: Suck it up, pal. And if Jamie Dimon ever wants to feel "bullied," he should get a call from his own Credit Card Department. I got one a couple of weeks ago that all but accused me of fraudulently renewing my own card. "It's a good thing we have your phone number and location," the Chase employee said - twice.
If bankers don't want to be denigrated, they might want to devote more time to socially useful activity. "the way to self-esteem," say the Twelve Step groups, "is by performing estimable acts."
And how does that make you feel?
The striking thing about the Dimon profile is how close he comes to the truth about his own industry, only to veer away at the last moment. Credit card fees were too aggressive, he admits. Banks were too predatory, he allows. And yet whenever it's time to reach the inevitable conclusion - that we need more regulation, not less - he pulls back at the last moment.
It's like watching an episode of In Treatment. I can almost see Gabriel Byrne leaning in toward his patient and fixing him with a soulful stare: "There's something you're trying to tell me, Jamie. What is it?"
I think I know.
It's a Bountiful Life
Dimon speaks of 'how the economy works, how Main Street and Wall Street work." His point? Banks lend, and lending creates jobs. He's right, of course, which is why this Christmas season we'll once again love Jimmy Stewart's banker in It's a Wonderful Life. We'll see how his local bank gave loans for the good of the community, and we'll understand why the angels stop him from jumping off that bridge.
If bankers found themselves on that bridge today, most Americans would encourage them to jump. Why? Because banks aren't performing the social role Dimon describes. Small business owners remain pessimistic about the availability of credit and many consumers are unable to take advantage of low interest rates because they can't get loans. Dimon hasn't used his visibility to address this issue in anything but the most general of ways, and prefers to make attacks on financial reform legislation instead - legislation that needs to be strengthened, not weakened.
Dimon keeps saying that mammoth banks are good because they provide "economies of scale." He even compares JPMorgan Chase to Wal-Mart. But whatever you think of Wal-Mart, it's certainly in a business where economies of scale are real. Where are the economies of scale in banking, and how have customers benefited? I have my problems with Wal-Mart, but at least their stuff is cheap.
Healing Your Inner Banker : The Six-Step Program
If Jamie Dimon really is a person of conscience, there are a lot of things he can do to salve his wounds and restore his reputation. But lobbying fiercely for his fellow predators isn't one of them, and neither is turning his bank into an even more dangerous behemoth than it is today. Here are some suggestions:
1. Stop Financing Sleazy Payday Lenders
Payday lenders target economically vulnerable populations and trap them into a cycle of debt that leaves them paying 400% interest on loans they're unable to pay back. And who gives them the capital to do it? JPMorgan Chase and the other big banks who now dominate our economy.
Payday lenders exploit minorities and violate 3,000 years of moral law. Dimon and his colleagues don't just fund their misadventures. They freeze lower-income workers out of conventional lending, forcing them to turn to this form of legalized loan sharking. Then they make big profits from it.
Jamie Dimon could set a moral example for the financial world by severing his bank's ties with this unethical industry. That's gotta make a guy feel good about himself. (More on payday loans here, here, and here.)
2. Treat your credit-card customers humanely
"One area (of growth opportunity) Dimon is excited about is credit cards," says Lowenstein. Dimon admits now that predatory credit card practices were "too much," but that didn't stop Chase from issuing heavy-handed, alarmist threats to its customers when the credit card law took effect: "Your credit card may not work the way used to!"
Dimon could direct his credit card division - the new object of his excitement - to knock off the barrage of robocalls to people whose payments are late. Reports of receiving three of four calls a day are common, and the calls don't stop when a payment is made. They can go on for days, until the payment is processed.
As for the weird call I received -- "we know where you are" -- I honestly don't know what to make of that.
3. Don't gamble with your customers' money - and lend more of it
Dimon is pleased that his bank serves so many personal customers and is so active in investment banking. Yet he's fighting to overthrow any restriction on gambling with his customers' savings. He should stop fighting and endorse this basic principle of fiscal responsibility.
That might even encourage banks to do more of what Mr. Dimon acknowledges is their rightful role: lending money to get the economy moving again.
4. Take responsibility for issuing so many bad mortgage loans
The Times piece shows Dimon attending a meeting where he's briefed on his bank's program to reduce the principal on underwater loans. That's a good idea. If homeowners bear some moral responsibility for over-borrowing, banks also have a moral responsibility because they lent too much - and encouraged people to do so, both with aggressive advertising and bogus home evaluations.
If Mr. Dimon's bank steps up and takes financial responsibility for its actions - in this case, by reducing the principal on loans it never should have made - it would set an example for the industry, help millions of struggling homeowners, and inject much-needed spending back into our lagging economy.
5. Clean up the auto-loan industry
JPMorgan Chase is the biggest underwriter of auto loans in the country. Many of those loans come indirectly, through auto dealers who hit customers with outrageous hidden markups. Their predatory behavior toward soldiers on military bases finally led Nancy Petraeus, wife of Gen. Petraeus, to start a campaign to make sure they're regulated. And it's not just soldiers who suffer. African Americans have been discriminated against with higher lending rates and more add-on charges.
Lobbyists got auto loans largely exempted from regulation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, despite documentation of widespread abuses. Jamie Dimon's voice can help change that. What's more, he can use his bank's dominance in this industry to clean it up. Mr. Dimon can help bring this to an end. (More on auto loans here.)
6. Break up your bank
JPMorgan Chase represents an existential threat to the economy. If we fail, says Dimon, we should go bankrupt. But he knows that will never happen when a bankruptcy would bring down the world economy. His bank dominates the derivatives industry:
He needs to voluntarily end this threat to the world economy.
The good feeling that comes from knowing you've done the right thing
Will he be fired if he takes this step? Maybe. But what's that to a man who "stood up to bullies" to protect his little brother, as the Times reports? He has more than enough to live on - he pulled down $115 million last year alone. And if he's really feeling as blue as we're told, no amount of money is worth what he's going through.
The old expression comes to mind: Iif you want a friend, then be a friend. I'll think the world of you, Mr. Dimon - really. And so will millions of other people. And no amount of money can match the peace of mind you'll get from knowing you've done the right thing.
Richard Eskow Washington Post