As the nation's largest savings and loan teetered Thursday morning, a senior federal regulator called a familiar number: Jamie Dimon's. It was the same number...
As the nation’s largest savings and loan teetered Thursday morning, a senior federal regulator called a familiar number: Jamie Dimon’s.
It was the same number the Federal Reserve had called six months earlier, when Bear Stearns, one of the oldest names of Wall Street, lurched toward a collapse that many feared would send losses cascading from one financial institution to the next.
This time, the trouble was at Seattle’s Washington Mutual, which had been hobbled by bad mortgages.
On the line from his Park Avenue headquarters, Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, listened as the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. told him the FDIC was about to seize WaMu — then sell it to JPMorgan.
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“We’re going to get it!” Dimon barked to one of his lieutenants. “Get ready!”
As one institution after another is laid low by the present crisis, Dimon stands at the head of a small band of bankers who are coming out on top in the new financial landscape.
With two bold deals — first Bear and now WaMu — Dimon has muscled in further on Wall Street’s traditional turf and transformed JPMorgan into the s largest U.S. commercial bank.
With WaMu, JPMorgan will have $905 billion in deposits and 5,400 branches nationwide, rivaling Bank of America in size and reach.
Dimon, 52, concedes he has taken risks to get here. To cover losses and write-downs at WaMu, JPMorgan sold $10 billion of new stock Friday.
But while many of his rivals are playing defense, Dimon said, JPMorgan was raising “offensive capital.”
“We are raising capital to do a deal, to buy something, to grow,” he said in an interview. “We are not raising capital to fill a hole.”
For Dimon, a Queens native whose grandfather and father were stockbrokers, this has been a watershed year. Only a decade ago, he was cast out of Citigroup by his mentor, Sanford Weill, leaving his career in shreds.
It was a stinging blow. The two men were so close that for a time they shared an office.
Dimon eventually joined Bank One as its chief executive. There, he cut costs, pulled the ailing bank into the black and sold it to JPMorgan in 2004, setting the stage for a remarkable Wall Street comeback.
But Dimon has few illusions about the challenges ahead. JPMorgan is still trying to digest Bear Stearns and its toxic assets. That will make absorbing the WaMu purchase that much harder. And if the housing market and economy worsen, WaMu could become an albatross.
“If we have a big depression, you may wind up saying that this was a dumb move,” Dimon said of buying WaMu. “You may be right. There are always uncertainties in deals. Our eyes are not closed on this one.”
It has been a remarkable journey for Dimon, who works only a few footsteps from the roll-top desk that belonged to J. Pierpont Morgan, the feared lord of the House of Morgan.
Like the bank’s namesake before him, Dimon has become a principal player in the biggest financial drama of his age. And, like J.P. Morgan, he is capitalizing on the fear and panic that can grip the markets to expand his banking empire.
Dimon had eyed WaMu for years and bided his time.
In March, JPMorgan wrote to WaMu, urging it to consider a sale in light of the weakening economy. At the time, it believed the savings and loan might face losses of more than $30 billion.
Even as Dimon oversaw the purchase of Bear Stearns that month, he dispatched his fellow executives to Seattle to meet with WaMu’s management. WaMu balked.
“They cut us out,” Dimon recalled. Crestfallen, he and his team returned to New York.
Dimon’s hopes sank further in April, when TPG, the big private equity firm run by David Bonderman, invested $7 billion in WaMu. “We might get another bite of the apple,” Dimon told colleagues.
No long wait
He did not have to wait long. At the end of June, WaMu’s problems were so serious that its primary regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, effectively put it on probation.
When IndyMac Bank, a big mortgage lender in California, collapsed in July, WaMu came under more pressure. Depositors began withdrawing money in growing numbers.
To halt the exodus, WaMu raised interest rates on certificates of deposit to unusually high levels, which made regulators even more nervous.
The situation deteriorated in September, when Lehman Brothers went into bankruptcy and the government effectively took over American International Group. That is when WaMu’s customers began pulling out nearly $17 billion of deposits, an outflow one regulator characterized as an “avalanche” of withdrawals.
Last Wednesday night, FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair phoned Dimon to tell him JPMorgan had submitted the winning bid and to be prepared if the government seized WaMu. Regulators took action Thursday.
JPMorgan paid $1.9 billion to the FDIC to acquire all of WaMu’s assets, branches and deposits. But the bank will most likely be responsible for absorbing $31 billion in losses tied to WaMu’s troubled loans.
WaMu shareholders and certain bondholders were wiped out, avoiding another expensive taxpayer-financed bailout.
In buying first Bear and then WaMu, Dimon has clung to the Morgan tradition.
A century ago, J.P. Morgan demanded that New York banks rescue one of their own during what became known as the Panic of 1907. In the mid-1980s, the bank helped with the Mexican bailout and the rescue of Continental Illinois, the largest bank failure until WaMu.
But while WaMu investors stand to lose billions of dollars — WaMu’s shares, which reached a record $46 in 2003, collapsed to 16 cents Friday — Dimon has scooped up potentially lucrative businesses.
Now more than ever, Dimon has pitted himself against his counterpart at Bank of America, Kenneth Lewis, who only weeks ago scooped up Merrill Lynch and rescued Countrywide Financial, the troubled mortgage lender, in January.
On the surface, the two have very different styles. Lewis is a soft-spoken banker who helped his mentor, Hugh McColl Jr., build Bank of America with a series of acquisitions.
The tough-talking Dimon learned to cut deals under Weill.
But Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an associate dean at the Yale School of Management, said the two men are more alike than it may seem. “Both are visionary, humble and great on execution,” he said.