With the web afire with criticism over JP Morgan's recently announced (and unexpected) $2 billion trading loss, a few "life lessons" came to mind as to how Jamie Dimon - and his PR department - bungled this badly:
Know the facts before taking a stand. When news of a "London Whale" came to light a month ago, and this trader was linked to JP Morgan, Dimon issued a strenuous denial that his was a big deal. According to the Wall Street Journal, and I'd tend to agree with them, Dimon didn't understand the true extent of his trader's activities or the risks it posed to the firm. Fast-forward to today: he looks like a terrible leader, one who allowed a trader one of the biggest risk books on the planet without knowing how it was impacting the firm's financial position. Why on earth would he make a statement about this trader's activities without truly understanding their impact in depth? His typical bravado backfired in this case. He should have heard the rumblings, did a deep forensic dive into the facts, developed a view and then communicated to the media. He chose not to follow this approach and got absolutely skewered. And deservedly so. He failed Crisis Management 101. Perhaps he should have learned from J&J's handling of the Tylenol scare. Lives may not be at risk here, but given how far out on a limb he had gone in denying any problem (and now knowledge of the problem) his PR morass is pretty hairy.
Avoid taking self-righteous positions. For all the skill and opportunism with which Dimon navigated JP Morgan through the financial crisis, he has long touted his emphasis on risk management and on prudent risk-taking. He specifically sought to paint his firm as distinctly different than those "cowboys" at Bear Stearns, Lehman and the other investment banks. Better diversification. Greater breadth. Better risk controls. These were the hallmarks of JP Morgan as a world-beater, largely immune to the troubles of its bulge bracket peers. Both the communication breakdown and lack of risk controls giving rise to this massive loss are completely at odds with his characterization of the firm. If you put yourself on the top of Mt. Olympus, you are always prone to a nasty fall if messaging and reality are found to be mis-aligned - as they are in this case.
Stop thinking that VaR has any linkage with reality. While Dimon himself may not have been aware of the magnitude of the Whale's risk position, certainly his risk managers were. And if they were using VaR, they should be skewered as should Dimon.