Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon and Trading Places
It's an irresistible story: Lloyd Blankfein, the once-embattled chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., has been giving quiet advice to Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., on how to handle "the challenges that Mr. Dimon is facing," as the New York Times put it in an article today.
Just what they have been discussing is left to the imagination, since the report is vague. It's one of those stories where the sources of information aren't named. Dimon and Blankfein have known each other for years. So it's no surprise that they talk. But the tidbits are interesting nonetheless.
Namely, we're told that Blankfein is advising Dimon that, in the Times's words, "the current storm will eventually pass," just as it did for Goldman after it weathered a brutal Senate investigative hearing and settled fraud accusations with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2010. Blankfein may well be right.
What we won't know until after JPMorgan's May 21 annual meeting is whether the bank's shareholders will approve a nonbinding proposal to split JPMorgan's chairman and CEO positions. Last year's version of the same initiative got 40 percent of the vote. This year's tally could surpass that, fueled by the reputational damage JPMorgan suffered after the $6.2 billion trading loss at its chief investment office in London last year.
My own view, as I wrote in a May 3 column, is that the chairman's post isn't worth fighting for. JPMorgan already has a strong "presiding director" -- former Exxon Corp. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond -- who has just about as much power in the boardroom as the chairman, including the ability to call meetings himself. The chairmanship, in its current form, is partly a figurehead post. If a large portion of JPMorgan's shareholders feel strongly about splitting the two jobs, the easiest way to end all of the drama is to give the chairman's position to someone else.
Should Dimon and the board refuse to yield, though, and the vote comes in at less than 50 percent, my guess is that Blankfein's words will be proven right. The intense public focus on JPMorgan will move on, provided there are no other blowups. Even if the vote tops 50 percent, which doesn't seem likely, that wouldn't mean Dimon would have to step down as chairman. The shareholder vote isn't binding.
Who knows? Maybe a few years from now Dimon will be the one giving advice to another Wall Street titan who suddenly finds himself in the klieg lights. If this whole experience leaves Dimon a little wiser and humbler, that can only be a good thing.
(Jonathan Weil is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)