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May 17, 2013 7:01 pm

Jamie Dimon, the last king of Wall Street

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JPMorgan’s chief executive has overcome dark times before
Joe Cummings' illustration of Jamie Dimon

Jamie Dimon might as well be dead, such is the rush of eulogies from corporate titans. Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch are among those to have praised America’s most famous banker, ahead of a contentious vote on whether he should remain chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase.

At 57, Mr Dimon has scaled the heights of Wall Street, emerging intact from the financial crisis with the “fortress balance sheet” he likes to boast of, allowing him to buy Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual when rivals were trying to survive.

For other imperial leaders his reckoning is worrying – why would a group of ungrateful shareholders even think about clipping Mr Dimon’s wings at an annual meeting in Florida next week?

Those shareholders want an independent chairman – or at least a tougher board – in a bid to improve accountability at the bank, which last year lost $6bn via a trader nicknamed the “London whale” and has since been engulfed by a regulatory and media firestorm. For most of the past 20 years, though, he could do little wrong. Mr Dimon, invariably just “Jamie” to those who know him and those who pretend to, was the warrior king of Wall Street.

He was a protégé to Sandy Weill, the co-creator of Citigroup, and the story of their falling out and Mr Dimon’s rising again to surpass his mentor’s achievements are listed in dozens of fawning magazine profiles.

He wins immense loyalty from most of those who work for him. He is greeted on bus tours of branches more like a rock star than a visiting boss of 256,000 employees. The 5ft 11in Mr Dimon, salt-and-pepper hair always a little longer than the Wall Street norm, dressed in polo shirt and jeans, poses for photos and signs autographs to a reception unimaginable to most other chief executives. Shareholders also have reason to celebrate him. At about $52, the stock is close to an all-time high. But the calls to rein in Mr Dimon’s legendary swagger, and to improve oversight are still strong.

He has overcome dark times before. The firing at the hands of Mr Weill in 1998 left him taking up boxing to release his anger as he plotted a comeback. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, recalls he phoned Mr Dimon to tell him: “Life’s long man – you’ll be back on top.”

He recalls another encounter, from 2009, when Mr Emanuel was Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Mr Dimon, along with other chief executives, came to the White House where he assertively made the case for aggressive government stimulus, “with tomahawk hands” carving the air. “Jamie says to the president: ‘The details matter, but not as much as using overwhelming force.’”

Mr Emanuel praises him as “a guy who puts points on the board”. Rival executives call him other things: “lucky” is a favourite, arguing that his ability to avoid the worst of toxic subprime debt before the crisis is not evidence of omniscience. The qualities they pin on him are “hubris” and “arrogance”. Mr Dimon, the grandson of a Greek immigrant to New York, is cast by hopeful rivals as a character in a tragedy, set to meet his comeuppance after soaring too high. “He’s drawn way too much attention to himself and to the industry,” says one.

Most of his friends and allies say the larger-than-life figure in the media is a distortion of the Jamie they know. But it’s one that he has found useful and abets – his old boxing gloves, with his name scrawled in black marker lie in open sight in his Park Avenue office.

Barney Frank is neither fan nor foe. As chairman of the House financial services committee, he was partly responsible for the new set of regulations – some of which Mr Dimon railed against as “anti-American”

“These are difficult times,” says Mr Frank, who retired this year. “But I don’t think by any measure I would list him as the most vulnerable ... He’s a very articulate, thoughtful guy.” The level of Mr Dimon’s articulacy is debatable. His rapid delivery is comprehensible to the ear but transcripts show staccato thoughts that trail off, interrupt each other with dubious syntax, as if his tongue is in a constant losing battle to keep up with his brain.

Mr Frank, whose own self-confidence is not in doubt, was asked about the arrogance charge: “I haven’t found Jamie Dimon’s behaviour ever to be obnoxious,” he says. But obnoxious or not, he has riled people. At a meeting in 2011 he yelled at Mark Carney, then governor of the Bank of Canada who, unfortunately for Mr Dimon given JPMorgan’s large presence in London, was subsequently named governor of the Bank of England. It was left to Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs chief executive, to smooth ruffled feathers.

People inside the bank say they enjoy the challenge he lays down. At 8am meetings every Friday, a tieless Mr Dimon makes bankers list deals captured by rivals and explain why they didn’t get them.

He is seen by many to be all but irreplaceable. The board has a “Jamie falls under a bus” candidate and two other possible longer-term options, according to people familiar with those discussions. But none of them is Jamie.

He is “colour in a sea of grey”, according to one acquaintance, contrasting him with calmer bosses such as Mike Corbat at Citigroup or Brian Moynihan at Bank of America.

But maybe these are grey days. The man who built two companies through audacious acquisitions has nowhere else to go: the US Federal Reserve will not allow any big bank to get bigger by buying companies; Congress is talking about forcing them to get smaller; regulations already in the wings will make the business less profitable; government officials and corporate governance wallahs are being more demanding.

The best hope for Mr Dimon’s large coterie of supporters is that this backdrop gives him something to prove for the first time since the crisis and that, whether he retains his chairmanship or not, all the hurdles and criticism might provoke another lease of life.

The writer is the FT’s US banking editor

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