JP Morgan boss’s analogy, comparing a finely tuned jet and vast multinational banks was a cheeky one, to say the least
Poor Jamie Dimon: as CNBC warmed the audience up for Wednesday’s Davos debate on “the global financial context”, the JP Morgan boss was forced to sit unflinching through an ear-splitting video montage of Wall Street’s misdemeanours, including the so-called “London Whale” farrago that saw his bank ‘fess up to having lost $6bn (£3.77bn) after several London traders made hugely risky bets in what was meant to be a relatively conservative corner of the bank.
True to pugnacious form, Dimon came out fighting. He took on Paul Singer, the hedge fund manager who has been critical of banks’ opaqueness and complexity, denying that there is anything about JP Morgan’s balance sheet that the public – or the regulators – can’t find out from reading the information it discloses. “You don’t know how aircraft engines work, either!” he shot back at Singer.
But his analogy, comparing a finely tuned jet and a vast multinational bank, is a cheeky one, to say the least. For one thing, if the London Whale revelations show anything, it is that Dimon and his team were not aware of what every cog in their machine was doing. And for another, it’s far too complacent to suggest that, because BA’s Willie Walsh can’t be expected to get his spanner out and tune up a 747, Dimon and his colleagues shouldn’t have to know the precise details of the financial engineering that keeps their banks in the air.
If anything, the best comparison to make with aeronautical engineering is that the implications of a plane dropping out of the sky are so dire that it’s in all our interests for the industry to be regulated within an inch of its life. And whether Walsh can name them or not, it’s fair to assume that every component of an aircraft engine performs some useful function or another, aside from maximising BA’s profits. For some complex financial products, that’s a much harder argument to make.
And unlike banks, if problems emerge in one aircraft, as Boeing is experiencing with its Dreamliner, then the rest of the fleet can be grounded until it is solved. There is no risk of a blow-up that can destabilise the entire global economy.