Friday, May 6, 2011

Dimon's "State of the Industry"

Finance types everywhere are familiar with Warren Buffet's annual sermon to shareholders in the form of a letter in the annual report. It's seldom, if ever, a bogged-down analysis of company ratios and trends. More a colloquial finance lecture. Everybody knows the Buffet letter, an honest pontification on business, the economy and the financial system. Derivatives are, he once notably said, "weapons of mass destruction" (although Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway operating vehicle has used them adroitly from time to time).

This year, Buffet has other priorities and distractions. He has an internal crisis to manage. Top deputy David Sokol is under investigation for suspicious trading activity. Sokol reportedly bought an equity stake in a company before Berkshire announced it would purchase it. Buffet has publicly scolded Sokol, and Sokol, as expected, is no longer next in line to run Berkshile.

That thorny current issue undermines the message Buffet delivered from his shareholder-letter pulpit in 2011. Buffet's letter this year is, as always, his usual remarkable finance lecture--a mid-level MBA finance discussion, written in comfortable, flowing style. But you read it wondering about the ethics case that confronts the company right now.
JPMorgan CEO Dimon

That brings us to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who in recent years has stepped up to the plate to provide sharp insight from his Park Avenue pulpit.  His letter to shareholders, also colloquial and comfortable, often includes a frank diagnosis of the financial and banking system. It takes a four-prong approach during a period when much has gone wrong in the global financial system:  (a) What happened? (b) What went wrong? (c) How can it be fixed? and (d) Who's responsible for fixing it? (And oh, by the way, what do we do with those who were responsible for what went wrong?)

The 2011 letter, just distributed, follows the same course. As in previous years, the letter was eagerly awaited, widely anticipated. Analysts, shareholders, and market watchers wondered, "What would Jamie say this year?"-- in a year, not of turmoil, but one of mild recovery and impressive earnings among large financial institutions. Dimon, as usual, detects what's wrong and proposes a fix-it solution--whether you the reader, the politician or the stock analyst agree or not.

What did Dimon say in 2011?

Up front, he says he caved in and didn't like restoring the bank's high quarterly dividend. He says bluntly and does so on the broad finance stage, "(If) it were up to me personally, I would reinvest all capital into our company and not pay any dividend." But in deference to shareholders, he says, "(This) is not what most shareholders want." Shareholders will understand his sentiment and long-term view, but many wanted some upside after a few years of volatile stock performance.

In general, his message is upbeat, not like the financial death warnings he offered two or three years ago on the same pages.

On risk, he says:  "Five years ago, very few people seemed to worry about outsized risk, black swans and fat tails."  Five years ago, recall, it was 2006, when markets soared and deals of all kinds (leveraged deals, mergers and acquisitions and thinly documented financings) were getting done. After the crisis, he says, "Today, people see a black swan with a fat tail behind every rock." And he wonders if financial institutions might have been too strickened to take prudent levels of business risks today.

Dimon injects bits of humor. On work ethic, he states, "The American people have a great work ethic, from farmers and factory workers to engineers and businessmen." He adds, "Even bankers and CEOs."

Basell III and Dodd-Frank regulation are big issues at big banks these days. The behemoth banks aren't approaching financial reform with open arms and warm smiles. But they acknowledge the business of banking must be tweaked, and the effort to sustain returns on equity at certain levels will be an immense challenge.  Banks will need to divert some attention from normal business activity to implement changes and systems required under new regulation. They also operate with a veil of uncertainty. Many of the details of new regulation are still being written.

Dimon's message this year addresses regulation in depth. He isn't fighting it or arguing for repeal. He is resigned to banks adapting (and whispers that costs might be passed on to customers.) "A likely outcome of the new regulations is that products and their pricing will change," he writes. "Some products will go away, some will be redesigned and some will be repriced."

He devotes passages to the "unintended consequences" of regulation--that Government may have the right intent to propose and enact new legislation, yet the impact could lead to complex consequences--some good for the general public, some very bad for the institutions that must comply. "If a restaurant that sells burgers can't sell french fries (because of a new rule), it risks losing all of its customers."

Dimon relents:  "Like it or not, we will adjust...."

And like it or not, the relenting Dimon acceded to shareholders' requests that shareholders be entitled to much higher quarterly dividends.

Tracy Williams

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