“Not Unless the Earth Gets Struck by the Moon” and Other Highlights from Jamie Dimon’s House Hearing

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Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, June 19, 2012.

Jamie Dimon returned to Capitol Hill yesterday for round two of his congressional testimony concerning JPMorgan’s springtime trading fiasco.

The Senate, which deposed Dimon last week, received criticism for its hands-off approach with the JPMorgan CEO. Pundits were surprised, given the unpopularity of too-big-to-fail bankers and the upcoming election, that Senators didn’t take more potshots at Dimon.

House Representatives took a bit of a different tack. Reps — who suffer from lower profiles than their upper-house peers and who are up for reelection every two years — tend to use these hearings as publicity stunts, and this latest session was no different. Though these hearings didn’t reveal any new information about the loss – Dimon is intent on playing his cards close to the vest until the bank states its earnings on July 13 – they were at least more entertaining, with the representatives more willing to ruffle a few feathers and ask pointed questions about the fundamental nature of our financial system. Here are our favorite exchanges from yesterday’s session:

1. Moon Strike: Wall Streeters are well known for their braggadocio, and Dimon is no exception. The JPMorgan chief, after all, is famous for his constant references to his “fortress” balance sheet. But Dimon may have outdone even himself with his latest hyperbole:  When asked by Wisconsin Rep Sean Duffy whether it was possible that the firm could suffer “a half a trillion or a trillion dollar loss,” Dimon replied “Not unless the Earth gets struck by the moon.”

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Duffy was suggesting that it was conceivable that another financial cataclysm could wipe out all of JPMorgan’s $190 billion in equity and $290 billion in unsecured debt, thus leaving taxpayers in the position of having to foot the bill for another bank rescue. Dimon isn’t wrong in suggesting that a half a trillion dollar loss is highly unlikely, but perhaps this sort of colorful language is something the CEO should avoid, at least while still trying to appear contrite.

2. Jamie Dimon Doesn’t Read His Own Press: Perhaps the most unbelievable statement Dimon made during the hearing was his contention that “I don’t remember if I read the Bloomberg article” which detailed loss limits in the offending CIO office. Obviously, Dimon is trying to avoid divulging the intimate details of his trading policies, but it’s more than a little likely that he reads 3,000-word exposes on the most embarrassing professional episode of his career. At least he hedged the statement with a well-placed “remember.” Either way he wasn’t under oath.

3. Gambling vs. Investing: Yesterday’s hearing was refreshing for it’s intermittent flashes of straightforwardness. Representative Ackerman posed a question that must be on many American’s minds: “What’s the difference between gambling and investing?”

The exchange followed:

Dimon: I think when you gamble you usually lose to the house.

Ackerman: That’s been my general experience with investing.

Dimon: I’d be happy to get you a better financial advisor.

A pithy dialogue, sure, but Dimon is a banker, not a sitcom writer. There are, after all, other fundamental differences between gambling and investing. When a bank invests in a company, that money will persumably help the company grow. It will likely make money for the bank, but also have broad benefits for society. Buying derivatives is a speculative activity. Derivatives can help an individual bank manage risk, but when the derivatives become the main focus of an investment vehicle rather than a hedge against losses, then the vehicle is closer to a gamble than an investment.

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4. Why Don’t We Break Up the Banks? The question I most wanted to hear asked of Dimon was simply why we shouldn’t forcibly break up the banks. Despite all of the regulatory maintenance Congress has done in the past several years, the nation’s largest banks are much bigger than they were pre-crisis, and nobody can be sure that the FDIC’s plan to unwind these institutions through a bankruptcy process would leave taxpayers unscathed. And because of this, the big banks are still getting funding on the open market at better rates than their smaller peers, a dynamic that only reinforces the problem. Representative Brad Sherman humored those of us who wanted Dimon to defend his bank’s size, asking, “Why should we allow you to be so big that if you go under we are going to have to bail out your creditors?”

Dimon handled the question well, responding:

“Banks should take risks relative to their size and capability. So you can’t compare all the banks. And I would venture — and I’m not going to change what you believe — but a lot of banks were a port in the storm. I know it’s convenient to blame them all for everything. But JPMorgan’s size and capability and diversification in ’08, ’09 and 2010 allowed us to continue to do the things that you wanted us to do. We never stopped making loans. We bought Bear Stearns at the request of the United States government. We helped the FDIC fund by buying WaMu. We lent money to California, New Jersey.”

A deft response, but it’s tough to prove causality between JPMorgan’s size and its weathering of the financial crisis. There were certainly plenty of well-managed smaller banks who were able to maintain some level of lending throughout the crisis.

5. Cost-of-Borrowing: This brings us to one of the more interesting assertions Dimon made in the hearing – that large banks aren’t receiving preferential funding at all. Sherman asserted that JPMorgan’s borrowing costs were 80 basis points below medium sized banks, and Dimon countered:

“I don’t believe that’s true. I’m going to give you two facts, if you don’t mind. Fact number one is, we borrow in the marketplace, unsecured, with the smartest people in the world. It costs us 200 basis points over Treasury. It costs the average single A industrial like 100 basis points over Treasury. So if everyone’s so smart and knew that we’re too big to fail, we’d be trading at 10 basis points over Treasury.”

He goes on to argue that JPMorgan pays the same for retail deposits as smaller banks. But as Reuters’ finance blogger Felix Salmon pointed out on Twitter, those funds are FDIC insured, and “That’s not where the cost-of-funds advantage lies.”

It seems Sherman caught Dimon in a bit of subterfuge there, but that was one of only a few weak moments for the CEO. As expected, the hearing threw off much more heat than light, with little additional disclosure about the trading debacle itself. For that, we’ll all just have to wait  until JPMorgan announces its quarterly financials on July 13.

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