Jamie Dimon lets smaller rival grab his pulpit

April 5, 2012

By Antony Currie
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Step aside Jamie Dimon. The JPMorgan chief can usually be relied on for a feisty and fresh letter to his bank’s shareholders – one that has come to be more closely watched than others written by his peers. Even Warren Buffett has showered praise on Dimon’s epistles. This year, though, his efforts fall a bit flat. That clears the way for the pen of Robert Wilmers. The boss of regional bank M&T has a take on the state of financial markets that makes it the must-read missive of the season.

That doesn’t mean investors should crumple or disregard Dimon’s letter. His 38-page opus covers plenty of important ground. The sections explaining market-making and share buybacks are informative – but aren’t necessarily new either. In fact, many of Dimon’s musings rehash old ground, including his gripes about the Durbin Amendment, Basel III being anti-American and other regulation he has attacked in the past.

For those who like Dimon’s traditional brand of fire, however, Wilmers is the place to turn in 2012. What makes the M&T chief’s 22-page dispatch stand out is a thoughtful and at times blunt assessment of the industry – and beyond.

For one, Wilmers offers a sound defense of U.S. regional banks that will strike a chord in the era of too big to fail. He’s no fan of Wall Street, deriding almost three decades of “a pattern of investing in areas where they possessed little knowledge,” appearing to “seek dominance at the expense of leadership” and stating that they “continue to distort our economy.” He even dug up some provocative figures to support his case. Take this one: the top six banks, presumably JPMorgan included, have been fined $47.6 billion for at least 207 transgressions since 2002.

The letter does at times read like a litany of complaints. Accounting, rating agencies, government-sponsored enterprises and regulators all come in for his scorn. But it all manages to come together as a well-made argument that greed and incompetence have undermined both trust and decent leadership in the financial sector. Dimon might not agree with all the points Wilmers makes. But he’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with the tone.

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