Published May 25, 2011
It's not easy to stump a world-class executive who commands more than $2.2 trillion in assets, but one shareholder activist succeeded at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.'s (JPM) annual meeting in Ohio last week.
"As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn't take advantage of people when they are down," Dawn Dannenbring told CEO Jamie Dimon, highlighting casualties in the mortgage mess.
"Do you believe in the same God I believe in?"
Dimon's response was appropriately circumspect: "That's a hard one to answer."
I asked Dimon about this encounter after he spoke at a scholarship dinner for the University of Colorado Denver Business School on Thursday.
"I didn't know what to say," Dimon told me. "It's a complicated question."
It also underscores some fundamental differences between how people think on Main Street versus Wall Street. Is there really an old man in the sky watching over this confusing tangle of transactions we call the economy?
Dimon could have answered this theological inquisition by saying he believed in the God who commands, pay your mortgage. He could have quoted Psalm 37:21. "The wicked borrow and do not repay."
But I suppose there's a reason they call him "America's least-hated banker." He knows when to keep quiet.
"I never expected to be in a business where I would get so much disrespect and anger," Dimon told his audience in Denver. "It took a lot of getting used to."
J.P. Morgan Chase was the first major bank to repay the billions it received from the Troubled Asset Relief Fund after the financial crisis of 2008.
"We didn't need the TARP money," Dimon said. "We took it because they asked us to."
The Treasury hoped loaning billions to all major banks would lessen the perceived sin of a government bailout. It didn't.
"I didn't anticipate the anger over TARP," Dimon said. "You get vilified for it. I called it a Scarlet Letter...I got, like, death threats over it."
Dimon couldn't wait to pay it back. "I had a check written for $25 billion," he said. "To get the check, my secretary had to go downstairs to the retail office... The person typed it up like it was an everyday occurrence."
He also drafted a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, but decided not to send it.
"It said, "Dear Timmy: We didn't know what to expect when we took this money... We learned a lot in the process and we hope you did, too... P.S. During the whole time you were lending us $25 billion, we were lending you $200 billion." "That's a true statement." Dimon said. "That's how much we owned in Treasuries and Treasury-related instruments."
Dimon also wrote in the undelivered letter to Geithner, "Because of that, I would like to audit your use of corporate planes, diamond rings, all the hotels you stay at ..."
J.P. Morgan Chase was the best-managed major bank going into the financial crisis. It was not without issues, but it was in a position to pick up the wreckage of its failed competitors and help rescue the economy.
Dimon has frequently made Time magazine's list of the top 100 most-influential people. In the recent HBO film "Too Big to Fail," he was played by Bill Pullman.
He's escaped many of the demonizing words lobbed at Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC) and others. But having acquired WaMu and Bear Stearns, he's stuck with the same bad mortgage karma as everybody else. That's why protesters ask him about God.
I do not know Dimon to be a deeply religious man, but he did offer this ethic:
"The only way you can live your life is try to do the right thing every day, fix your mistakes, move on, and try to do the right thing the next day."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)