Jamie Dimon delivered a message that some pundits and lawmakers have been waiting for a while to hear from the country's bankers: an apology for helping ruin the economy.
"Some of the mistakes we made may have contributed to the crisis. For those, of course, we are sorry," the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co. wrote in a lengthy letter to shareholders last week.
"Our two largest mistakes were making too many leveraged loans and lowering our mortgage underwriting standard."
Dimon is among a handful of big bank CEOs to get reflective about the financial crisis in recent weeks in their annual missives to investors. Though the heads of Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., U.S. Bancorp and other institutions have vastly different assessments of how their institutions fared in the recession, their letters show that they all tend to agree that the worst has passed and that some kind of regulatory reform is needed.
None of them went so far as Dimon's offering a mea culpa for its role in the meltdown, though.
Dimon — who described the company's performance last year as "not great" — urged lawmakers to pass some kind of financial reform this year. He advocated a systemic risk regulator as well as a banking-industry funded mechanism for winding down failed institutions.
"The era of bailouts must end, and the oversight of system-wide risk must increase," Dimon wrote.
Dimon said he also regretted that JPMorgan Chase participated in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. guarantee program that enabled it to issue some $40 billion in unsecured debt because "we didn't need it."
Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit said his company took its "need" for special assistance from the U.S. government "very hard and very personally." While it was "essential" that the New York banking giant issue a lot of stock and take other actions to strengthen its capital base, he said: "I deeply regret that they also resulted in significant dilution to our shareholders."
Still, he described 2009 as a "watershed year" for the company as it made gains restructuring the business and narrowed its loss from a year earlier.
On the regulatory front, Pandit called for higher capital standards for "systemically important institutions" as well as "more transparency" for derivatives trades.
John G. Stumpf of Wells Fargo struck a patriotic tone in his letter, saying the company took $25 billion from the Treasury Department because "we understood our role as Americans first, bankers second."
He said Wells Fargo is doing its part to help mend the economy by lending to businesses and people and helping homeowners modify their mortgages.
Stumpf said lawmakers should tread carefully when it comes to overhauling the financial industry. He said a new consumer protection agency could create "regulatory conflicts that would inadvertently create new risks." Like Dimon, he called for a "resolution authority" for liquidating large institutions.
The heads of U.S. Bancorp, PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and Capital One Financial Corp., meanwhile, used their shareholder letters to engage in a bit of chest-thumping while giving general support for new industry regulation.
Richard K. Davis said 2009 was a "remarkable year" that "distinguished" U.S. Bancorp as a "very special company." Capital One's Richard D. Fairbank called it a "defining year."
"We have weathered the storm well and are emerging as one of the nation's strong banks."