God and Mr. Dimon

While protestors at the JP Morgan Chase annual shareholders meeting in Columbus, Ohio braved the rain and faced off with police, inside the McCoy Center there was a remarkable exchange.

“As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn’t take advantage of people when they are down,” said Dawn Dannenbring, of the community group Illinois People’s Action, addressing CEO Jamie Dimon. “Do you believe in the same God I believe in?”
Dimon answered: “That’s a hard one to answer.”

Of course, whether Jamie Dimon believes in a merciful God is a matter for him to decide and settle with his own conscience. Whether he believes in the same merciful God Dawn Dannenbring believes in is probably impossible to answer, or would, at least, require an extended theological discussion. And neither Dimon nor Dannenbring seemed ready to have that conversation. The JP Morgan Chase CEO obviously wanted to get on with the business of the shareholder meeting. And Dannenbring was less interested in knowing the secrets of Mr. Dimon’s heart than in playing Portia to his Shylock and shaming him.

Dannenbring’s motives aside, her question echoed other recent criticism of Mr. Dimon. On the blog Credit Slips, Adam Levitin attacked Dimon a couple of weeks ago for having no concept of mercy after Dimon said, in an exchange with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, that some people find themselves in better financial circumstances after foreclosure, and that, moreover, foreclosure is a form of debt relief: “Giving debt relief to people that really need it, that’s what foreclosure is.” Levitin was baffled:

For real?… “Debt relief” requires a forgiveness of debt. It’s a gift, not an exchange. There’s no quid pro quo….I can’t fathom how Dimon conceives of foreclosure as an act of mercy.

Over at Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith picked up on Levitin’s criticism: “the Dimon moral calculus is fascinating. If foreclosures are kind, is it even kinder to restore debtors’ prisons? After all, those people who lose their homes would be assured of getting shelter.” If today’s bankers believe in God, Smith says, they must believe in the angry God of the Old Testament, the same God who strips Job of his possessions and reduces him to sackcloth and ashes.

That Jamie Dimon is now being put in the company of Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and other tight-fisted ministers of vengeance is all the more remarkable because Dimon is regularly held up in management literature (like this Introduction to Leadership[pdf]) and in the business press as an example of great leadership.

“Outspoken, profane, fearless,” as one CNN Money profile describes him, Dimon is regularly praised for having steered JP Morgan Chase away from the subprime crisis, exiting the business of securitizing subprime mortgages at the height of the boom and forgoing both Structured Investment Vehicles and Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs. Notably, neither New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman nor Senator Carl Levin, who are independently investigating criminal wrongdoing in the subprime crisis, have named Dimon or JP Morgan Chase as a target of their investigations. Even Matt Taibbi has focused his pieces for Rolling Stone on Goldman, not JP Morgan Chase.

For some, no doubt, it is a question of degree: while certain CEOs led their banks into criminal activity, others offered little relief to those caught up in the mortgage crisis. Perhaps both are to blame, and thanks to Levin and Schneiderman at least some of the criminals will now face justice.

But rather than expect the CEO of a global bank to forgive debts, or bear witness to his faith in a merciful God, I would prefer to know what constructive steps, if any, the banks are taking now to help the American middle class regain its footing and rebuild trust – not necessarily in God, but in the everyday workings of the American economy.

In other words, why ask for mercy when you can demand responsibility? I wish Maria Bartiromo would press Mr. Dimon in their next interview to talk specifically to this point, and to articulate clearly the obligations his company has, and the steps his bank will take, to help restore — what else to call it? — the common wealth. The exchange might be one for the leadership books.

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