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JPM puts the “No” in NOLA

On May 11, JP Morgan CEO James Dimon called the president of the nation’s community bank trade association a “jerk” in a live interview. Dimon characterized Camden Fine of the Independent Bankers Association of America in this way following Fine’s assertion that the ill-regarded mega-banks hid behind better-regarded community banks for political cover when lobbying for deregulation.

chaseNOPublic Citizen has voiced critiques similar to Fine’s about the mega-banks. Indeed, Public Citizen urges JP Morgan’s break-up, and filed a shareholder resolution calling on a study of this idea.  So when I attended the May 17 annual meeting of JP Morgan, I expected to draw some colorful rejoinders from CEO Dimon. Instead, the meeting in New Orleans, LA, known to locals as NOLA, was a meeting of “no.”

There was no name calling. In fact, CEO Dimon declared in his prepared remarks that the bank should be less defensive with public criticism. And he declared his firm squarely on the path of moral rectitude, and that misconduct would not be tolerated. He also described the company’s record financial results.

His remarks, which he read at a pace similar to the TV advertisement legal disclaimer for Cialis’ side effects, were a synopsis of his 50-page defense that opens JPMorgan’s annual report.

The comforting words regarding conduct were dissonant with the lengthy rap sheet of recent settlements for claims of misconduct at JPMorgan. They were also dissonant with the meeting venue, which was New Orleans’ Bourbon St. Shareholders attending the meeting needed to slalom there through people sleeping on the sidewalk either because they couldn’t find their way home, or they didn’t have a home; passed strip clubs open for business at 9:30 a.m.; and under awnings advertising alcoholic beverages that you’re welcome to sip on the street.

There was also no victory for shareholders hoping for some basic reforms through six separate proposals that constituted the core of this annual meeting. Public Citizen advanced one of these—the break-up study—and I introduced four others as a courtesy to the proponents who wanted to spare themselves travel expenses. Voting shareholders turned down all these proposals. Partly this is explained by the fact that 13 percent of the shareholders didn’t vote. Most voters are institutions tied into JP Morgan and other banks. Of course it didn’t help that the company uses language that confuses– the ballot didn’t actually say “break-up study,” but “shareholder value committee,” which an institutional voter sifting through hundreds of annual meeting ballots might dismiss as another expensive, needless distraction. Andrew Ackerman of the Wall Street Journal has explored this clever dodge.

There were also no questions asked at the meeting, though the agenda provided for them. But during the periods before and after the meeting, company officers didn’t mingle with their investors. Shareholders who make the effort to attend an annual meeting are often indulged with actual conversations with the directors and senior managers with whom they’ve entrusted their savings. At the Citi and Bank of America meeting, I’ve chatted with such senior officials. Not so at JP Morgan. The board was sequestered from shareholders and insulated by security guards. Dimon did not breach the theatrical fourth wall. Prior to the meeting, the self-styled prince of Wall Street, stood by himself, arms crossed, unsmiling. After, he left by a door reserved for officers.

The formal meeting lasted 42 minutes.

I did converse briefly with Corporate Secretary Anthony Horan, a veteran, and General Counsel Stacey Friedman, a relative newcomer. Interestingly, Friedman comes not from financial law, but from civil rights. She asked me if I preferred “Bart” or “Bartlett,” allowing me to riff about my college connections to TV’s “Simpsons” writing legend George Meyer. (Bart is an anagram of brat whereas the other Simpson names are identical to the creator’s actual .)

Several shareholders approached me after the meeting to thank me for raising key issues. One, who is a retired Louisiana banker, speculated that the bank held the meeting in a town unfocused on financial issues by design.

Not only was there no coffee, in a town famous for a powder sugared sweet called a Beignet, JPM didn’t even treat us to this NOLA cliché.

To sum, no name-calling, no reform victories, no questions, no full hour, no conversations, no coffee, no beignets. JPM put the “no” in NOLA.