Jamie Dimon’s Original Sin: ‘America’s Best Banker’ Was Overrated From the Start

The lesson of JP Morgan’s historic resilience (and, now, record fine) is that its leader turned out to be painfully mortal, all along

Jamie Dimon was the toast of Wall Street during, and shortly after, the financial crisis. He was the last man standing, with JP Morgan, and supposedly Barack Obama's favorite banker.

Now, JP Morgan owes a record $13 billion federal fine and is still on the hook for criminal penalties for its mortgage-backed securities trades. But his supporters, including the board of directors of JP Morgan, have circled the wagons, insisting that Dimon is above reproach and utterly capable at the helm of the iconic bank.

When you’ve been called, in a span of six years, the world’s best and worst banker, it’s fair to say the pendulum is over-swinging in both directions. Dimon was probably overrated during the financial crisis. Today he is, simultaneously, less nefarious than his critics claim and less innocent than his defenders insist.

Strip away the superlatives, and the record reflects that Jamie Dimon was average all along -- receiving credit for policies that predated him and successes that were short-lived. JP Morgan executed complex deals with collateralized-debt obligations that were both morally questionable and financial disastrous—just look at the ProPublica investigation of Magnetar, for example. The reason they didn’t implode like Merrill Lynch was that they had a smaller share of the derivatives market. The bank’s credit derivatives team was hesitant to get too involved with such deals, not just because of Dimon’s famous scruples, but because the team before Dimon’s arrival considered many of these trades too risky.

Dimon was lauded for taking advantage of the financial crisis to make JP Morgan bigger and stronger, notably by buying both Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual on the cheap. Today, the bank's defenders are arguing that JP Morgan did these deals as a kind of public service to the country. Hogwash. Even if they did bid on those banks at the request of the government, JP Morgan had all the bargaining power in those days, as evidenced by the initial price paid for Bear Stearns ($2 per share, before a drafting error forced a renegotiation) and guarantees that shifted the downside asset risk to the New York Fed. The simple fact is that Dimon thought he could gobble up Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual on the cheap, and their legal liabilities turned out to be far more expensive than he knew. Dimon signed off on them then, and he's paying for them now.

Dimon and JPMorgan were supposed to be the world's best finance team because they were so good at risk management. Today their risk-management skills speak for themselves. Just count the scandals: from the “London Whale”, to the money-laundering investigations, the Chinese corruption allegations, and, most notably, the risk management and compliance failures at the heart of the $13 billion settlement (including the failure to spot the liability risk carried by Bear Stearns and WaMu).

So why is Dimon still in charge of an enormous bank while many of his contemporaries were felled by the crash? A lot of the divergence in their fortunes is probably due to nothing more than variance in outcomes. In fields where individual output is difficult to observe (e.g., corporate management, as opposed to downhill skiing or cycling time trials), random variation swamps true ability. In other words, whomever the media choose to put on a pedestal at any moment is there largely because of luck. Dimon was probably just never as good as his boosters made him out to be.

By the same token, nor is he a bumbling fool today. The fact that JPMorgan will probably pay the largest regulatory settlement in history—and still faces potential criminal charges—does not make him the worst CEO of all time. Compared to some of his peers—the acquisition-loving Ken Lewis, the own-hype-believing Stan O'Neal, the office-remodeling John Thain, and the dancing Charles Prince, for example—he seems relatively less incompetent.

JP Morgan's problem, however, is that it chose to embrace the Jamie Dimon aura, and now the entire board is committed to his candidacy for sainthood. They have too much invested to admit that he's just an ordinary mortal, and while his experience makes him less unqualified than most to run a monstrosity the size of JPMorgan, his overall record—a growing list of settlements, fines, and investigations—is disappointing at best.

In the long view, Dimon was a key player in the construction of Citigroup, widely considered the epitome of everything that is wrong with a financial mega-conglomerate. Then he helped build JP Morgan Chase, the new poster child for too-big-to-manage super-banks. Really, this is America's best banker?