As JPMorgan Releases Earnings, All Eyes on Dimon

The bank and its candid CEO report better-than-expected earnings.

ByALICE GOMSTYN <br/> ABC NEWS Business Unit
April 15, 2009, 8:43 PM

April 16, 2009&#151; -- JPMorgan Chase this morning revealed better-than-expected earnings of $2.1 billion and, in a conference call with analysts, CEO Jamie Dimon stayed true to his pull-no-punches reputation, reiterating his disdain for the federal assistance he's said his bank was forced to take last year as the government sought to shore up the country's ailing banking system and JPMorgan's competitors.

The government's $25 billion investment of taxpayer funds into bank titan JPMorgan has been a "scarlet letter" and no bank competitor "should be able to pay it back faster than we do," Dimon said.

"We can pay it back tomorrow. We have the money," he said, adding that the bank was awaiting government guidance on when to repay the funds.

Dimon also announced that JPMorgan would not participate in the Treasury Department's Public Private Investment Partnership, which was designed to relieve banks of their troubled assets.

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The Treasury program, he said, "could be helpful in general to the system," but it's "basically irrelevant to JPMorgan Chase."

"We manage and control our own assets -- if we want to sell them, we'll sell them," Dimon said.

The bank's balance sheet, Dimon said, is "a fortress."

As JPMorgan has continued to maneuver around some of the worst of the financial crisis, all eyes have been on Dimon, the bank's straight-shooting, fast-talking CEO.

Dimon's eyes, meanwhile, have often been focused on a folded piece of paper he keeps handy in his pocket, a note the 52-year-old has sometimes called "the stuff people owe me" list.

Plenty of people owe Dimon a lot: Under his tenure, JPMorgan has gone from being simply known as a powerful global bank to becoming one of the most-heralded survivors of this recession.

Dimon's ability to avoid much -- albeit not all -- of the financial sinkholes that swallowed others, left JPMorgan strong enough to purchase two failing banking giants: investment house Bear Stearns and commercial bank Washington Mutual.

Dimon: Not Afraid to Offend

But Dimon's tough negotiations and deft financial crisis maneuvering hasn't left the baby-faced New York native without a sense of humor: Late last month, as talk swelled of big banks possibly returning the billions the federal government loaned them under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Dimon handed a fake check to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at a White House meeting.

Geithner didn't smile as he handed the check back to Dimon.

Dimon, however, likely wasn't worried about offending the secretary -- he's known for candor with anyone and everyone, and his rhetoric during the financial crisis has been no exception.

During a conference call last March, as the Bear Stearns deal came together, Dimon blasted his Citigroup counterpart, Vikram Pandit, after growing annoyed when Pandit asked a highly technical question, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"Stop being such a jerk," Dimon said, later adding that Citigroup -- the banking behemoth widely regarded as among the firms hardest hit by the crisis -- "should thank" JPMorgan for staving off more trouble on Wall Street.

Dimon's tough talk isn't just bluster -- in his efforts to find the best managers when he joined JPMorgan, he "fired people left and right who he felt didn't meet his standards," said Dick Bove, a banking analyst at Rochdale Securities, who has followed Dimon for some two decades.

Dimon is also confident enough not to distance himself from talented people, as some CEOs do, Bove said.

"What you find among many CEOs is they tend not to create strong people around them because they don't want to be threatened," he said. "What you find among top-quality CEOs -- they build the top quality talent because they're not afraid of strong people around them."

Jetting Into Criticism

Dimon has been known, more than once, to stop an employee in the elevator and grill them about what can be fixed, according to Patricia Crisafulli, author of the recently released "The House of Dimon: How JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon Rose to the Top of the Financial World."

But Dimon also knows when to back off, said Paul Marshall, a Harvard Business School professor who's had Dimon lecture at his classes.

"Once he finds a set of people who do what needs to be done, he moves way away and backs up," Marshall said. "You get in and get out -- he's good at that."

Still, Dimon has not avoided criticism. In particular, his spending has come under scrutiny: He ran up a $211,182 tab for private jet travel last year, when his family -- he is married with three daughters -- lived in Chicago and he was commuting to New York.

Last month, Dimon and JPMorgan Chase came under fire again when it was revealed that the bank planned to spend millions to build "the premiere corporate aircraft hangar on the eastern seaboard" in Westchester County, N.Y.

Some argue that Dimon is thriving during this crisis because operating in crisis mode is simply what the Harvard Business School grad does. He has been credited with engineering the turnaround of Bank One, the Chicago-based bank that Dimon led until it merged with JPMorgan in 2004.

His Bank One victory came several years after he was unceremoniously fired from Citigroup by one-time mentor and (now retired) Citigroup chief Sandy Weill.

Dimon's parents had been friends with Weill, and for two decades after business school Dimon followed the banking veteran, learning the business from him and working his way up the corporate ladder.

Dimon and Weill had put together major deals that undoubtedly gave Dimon good practice for the mergers he would later craft at JPMorgan.

But "it was pretty tough the last couple of years, that's life," Dimon would later explain in an interview with CNBC."... I describe it a little bit like a divorce. You know, sometimes two good people just can't seem to, you know, see eye-to-eye and it doesn't work well."

Dimon and Weill eventually made up. But that initial parting of ways with Weill wasn't the last of Dimon's stumbling blocks. Like other banks, JPMorgan has been criticized for accepting billions through TARP -- funds that Dimon has said the government forced his bank to take.

Acting Like a 'Dysfunctional Family'

Bowing to public and political pressure, Dimon, like many of the CEOs whose companies were benefactors of the government bailout, agreed not to receive a bonus last year.

He has also urged an end to the "villification" of corporate America.

"If we act like a dysfunctional family and we don't finish these things and we're forever debating them, I think this will go on for several years," Dimon said at a conference hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Bloomberg News reported. "It's completely up to us at this point."

ABC News' Scott Mayerowitz and Russell Goldman contributed to this story.

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