There are a number of letters that I look forward to reading each year. Some of them are well known and Buffett's are, of course, a classic example. There are also others that have added enormous value to my thinking over the years, and that have opened my eyes to many new and varied investment opportunities. They have also helped me spot emerging themes, new ideas, thought processes and mental models. I mentioned Buffett because his 2011 letter is a case in point. In that Buffett recommended reading Jamie Dimon's annual letters. And it's little wonder; Buffett has said this about Dimon in the past...
"I think he knows more about markets than probably anybody you could find in the world."
"I recommend you read Jamie Dimon’s letter, at JPMorgan, is a tour de force, in terms of describing the banking scene, the economic scene. He has some real insights in there about some very important subjects."
We don’t own that stock, but it’s a letter that I think everybody could learn a lot from reading
Jamie Dimon, the son of a stockbroker, has been at the helm of JP Morgan [and it's predecessor firm 'Bank One'] since March 2000. In that time the tangible book value has compounded at 11.8%pa vs 5.2%pa for the S&P500. Not surprisingly, the stock price has followed, delivering a 12.4%pa return vs the S&P500's 5.2%pa over that period. A cumulative gain of 691% versus 147% for the S&P500. Not bad considering the multitude of challenges that have faced global banks over that period, including the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
What's evident from Dimon's letters is his grasp of both investing and business; two essential characteristics according to Buffett which are required for success.
"Being an investor you're buying pieces of a business. And being a businessman, you better understand alternatives for money, in terms of allocating capital - and therefore you are partially an investor. So I've benefited in both roles by the fact I was in the other one." Warren Buffett
Dimon's 2017 letter covers off on many of the themes we have highlighted in other posts that define successful businesses and CEOs. Dimon's information is likely as good as it gets, he has a bird's eye view of the global economy and his letter provides insights into markets, the economy and possibilities for the future. At 47 pages, it's comprehensive. But it's an easy read and for that you can thank Warren Buffett...
"I read his [Buffett's] partnership letters when I was in high school or college and he would say 'I'll speak to you as if you're my smart sister who doesn't know everything I know so I have to go out of my way to explain it to you and business isn't complicated'. I always felt exactly the same way." Jamie Dimon
I've included some of my favourite extracts below..
How to Consider Banks
" .. we believe tangible book value per share is a good measure of the value we have created for our shareholders. If our asset and liability values are appropriate — and we believe they are — and if we can continue to deploy this capital profitably, we now think that it can earn approximately 17% return on tangible equity for the foreseeable future. Then, in our view, our company should ultimately be worth considerably more than tangible book value."
"... tangible book value “anchors” the stock price."
"In prior years, I explained why buying back our stock at tangible book value per share was a no-brainer.. While we prefer buying back our stock at tangible book value, we think it makes sense to do so even at or above two times tangible book value."
" ... we much prefer to use our capital to grow than to buy back stock. Buying back stock should only be considered when we either cannot invest (sometimes that’s a function of regulatory policies) or when we are generating excess, unusable capital."
Quarterly Earnings & Stock Price
"Our stock price is a measure of the progress we have made over the years. This progress is a function of continually making important investments, in good times and not-so-good times, to build our capabilities — people, systems and products. These investments drive the future prospects of our company and position it to grow and prosper for decades."
"We do not worry about the stock price in the short run, and we do not worry about quarterly earnings. Our mindset is that we consistently build the company — if you do the right things, the stock price will take care of itself."
"Do not confuse financial success with profits in a quarter or even in a year. All businesses have a different customer and investment life-cycle, which can be anywhere from one year to 30 years – think of building new restaurants to developing new airplanes or building electrical grids. Generally, anything our business does to grow will cost money in the short term (whether it’s opening branches or conducting research and development (R&D) or launching products), but it does not mean that it is not the right financial decision.
A company could be losing money on its way to bankruptcy or on its way to a very high return on invested capital. Diligent management teams understand the difference between the two scenarios and invest in a way that will make the company financially successful over time.
You need to invest continually for better products and services so you can serve your customers in the future. A bank cannot simply stop serving its clients or halt investing because of quarterly or annual earnings pressures.
It does not work when long-term investing is changed because of short-term pressures – you cannot stop/start training programs and the development of new products, among other investments. You need to serve your clients and make investments while explaining to shareholders why certain decisions are appropriate at that time. Earnings results for any one quarter or even the next few years are fundamentally the result of decisions that were made years and even decades earlier."
Satisfy Your Customers
"It is a given that you will not grow your share – unless you are satisfying your customers – and we know they can always walk across the street to be served by another bank."
"If you build the right culture, where management teams are intensely analytical and critical of their own business’ strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, you can create great clarity about what those opportunities are."
"Building shareholder value is the primary goal of a business, but it is simply not possible to do well if a company is not properly treating and serving its customers, training and motivating its employees, and being a good citizen in the community. If they are all done well, it enhances shareholder value."
Importance of Employees
"Talented, diverse employees deliver lifelong – and satisfied – customers. They also deliver innovative products, excellent training and outstanding ideas. Basically, everything we do emanates from our employees. And all of this creates shareholder value."
"We want to have the best people, period. We know happy customers start with happy employees, and we want to be the best place to work everywhere we do business."
"We would rather earn a fair return and grow our businesses long term than try to maximize our profit over any one time period."
"Diligent management invest in a way that will make the company financially successful over time."
"[Public companies] can continue to resist pressures to focus on the short term at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainable performance. And in my mind, quarterly and annual earnings per share guidance is a major contributor to that short-term focus.
It can cause companies to hold back on technology spending, marketing expenditures and other investments in their future in order to meet a prognostication affected by factors outside the company’s control, such as fluctuations in commodity prices, stock market volatility and even the weather.
That’s why during my time as JPMorgan Chase’s CEO we’ve never provided quarterly or annual net earnings guidance and why we would support any company that considers dropping such guidance in the future. We totally support being open and transparent about our financial and operational numbers with our shareholders – this includes providing guidance or expectations around number of branches, likely expense levels, “what ifs” and other specific items."
"With their own sizable investment portfolios, most public companies could use their power as shareholders to urge public companies and asset managers to take a relentlessly long-term focus... That may mean using performance benchmarks over three-, five- and even 10-year periods, in addition to shorter period benchmarks."
Fortress Balance Sheet
"Our bank operates in a complex and sometimes volatile world. We must maintain a fortress balance sheet if we want to continually invest and support our clients through thick and thin."
"We have always believed that maintaining a strong balance sheet (including liquidity and conservative accounting) is an absolute necessity."
"JPMorgan Chase has to be prepared to handle multiple, complex, global and interrelated types of risk."
"To explain how serious we are about stress testing, you should know that we run several hundred tests a week – including a number of complicated, potentially disastrous scenarios – to prepare our company for almost every type of event. While we never know exactly how and when the next major crisis will unfold, these rigorous exercises keep us constantly prepared."
Consider Alternative Scenarios
"In the financial markets, we must be prepared for the full range of possibilities and probabilities."
"We strive to try to understand the possibilities and probabilities of potential outcomes so as to be prepared for any outcome. We analyze multiple scenarios (in addition to the stress testing I wrote about earlier in this section). So regardless of what you think about the probabilities, we need to be prepared for the possibilities, including the worst case."
"In essence, we try to manage the company such that all possibilities, including the “fat tails” (the worst-case scenarios), cannot hurt the company."
"When I hear people talk about banks taking risks, it often sounds as if we are taking big bets like you would at a casino or a racetrack. This is the complete opposite of reality.
Every loan we extend is a proprietary risk. Every new facility we build is a risk. Whether we are adding branches or bankers – or making markets or expanding operations – we perform extensive analytics and stress testing to challenge our assumptions. In short, we look at the best- and worst-case scenarios before we “take risk.” Much of what we do as a bank is to mitigate or manage the risk being taken."
Don't Overly Rely on Models
"We try to intelligently, thoughtfully and analytically make decisions and manage risk (and not overly rely on models)."
"We rely heavily on detailed and constantly improving models as a foundational element of that analysis. But we are cognizant of the fact that models by their nature are backward looking and have a difficult time adjusting to material items, including the following:
• The character and integrity of those with whom you are doing business
• Changing technology as it impacts industries (including the banking industry)
• Future changes in the law or even how the law might be interpreted differently 10 years from now
• Deteriorating international competiveness (as what happened to our tax code)
• Emerging competitive threats
• Changes in industrial structure; e.g., new sources of competition
• Political influence and unexpected litigation
• Public sector fiscal challenges, demographic changes and challenges managing the nation’s healthcare resources
There are other items – but you get the point. Judgment (which will never be perfect all of the time) cannot be removed from the process."
"There has been an excessive reliance on models [in markets]"
"Banks and regulators need to be more forward looking and less backward looking — particularly when examining risks across the system."
"Since we know we will be wrong sometimes, we almost always look at the worst possible case – to ensure JPMorgan Chase can survive any situation."
Understand Volatility and Non-Linearity
"We are always prepared for volatility and rapidly moving markets – they should surprise no one.
I am a little perplexed when people are surprised by large market moves. Oftentimes, it takes only an unexpected supply/demand imbalance of a few percent and changing sentiment to dramatically move markets. We have seen that condition occur recently in oil, but I have also seen it multiple times in my career in cotton, corn, aluminium, soybeans, chicken, beef, copper, iron – you get the point.
Each industry or commodity has continually changing supply and demand, different investment horizons to add or subtract supply, varying marginal and fixed costs, and different inventory and supply lines. In all cases, extreme volatility can be created by slightly changing factors.
It is fundamentally the same for stocks, bonds, and interest rates and currencies. Changing expectations, whether around inflation, growth or recession (yes, there will be another recession – we just don’t know when), supply and demand, sentiment and other factors, can cause drastic volatility."
"The biggest negative effect of volatile markets is that it can create market panic, which could start to slow the growth of the real economy."
"Bureaucracy is a disease. Bureaucracy drives out good people, slows down decision making, kills innovation and is often the petri dish of bad politics"
"Leaders must continually drive for speed and accuracy to eliminate waste and kill bureaucracy. When you get in great shape, you don’t stop exercising."
"We need to simplify our processes while accelerating the pace of change and driving new innovations."
"You can take any part of your business and re-imagine it. You can get all the right people in the room to think about a certain process and re-imagine how it could be done from the ground up."
"Complacency is another disease. It is usually borne out of arrogance or success, but it is a guarantee of future failure. Our competitors are not resting on their laurels – nor can we. The only way to fight complacency is to always analyze our own actions and point out your own weaknesses. It’s great to openly celebrate our successes, but when the door is closed, management should emphasize the negatives."
"In less mutable times, a degree meant that formal learning was complete. You had acquired what you needed for a successful career in your field. A degree in today’s world cannot mean the end of your studies. New discoveries, new advancements, new technologies and new terminology all mean that a degree will not carry you as far into the future as it once did. We must place a higher premium on lifelong learning. Corporations can do a lot to encourage and foster such a shift."
"I will not spend time dwelling on geopolitics here, which can – but rarely does – upset the global economy."
"Unemployment may very well drop to 3.5% this year, and there are more and more signals that business will improve capital expenditures and raise payrolls. Credit is readily available (though still not enough in some mortgage markets). Wages, jobs and household formation are increasing. Housing is in short supply. Underlying consumer and corporate credit have been relatively strong. All these signs lead to a positive outlook for the economy for the next year or so."
US Tax Changes
"The good news is that the recent changes in the U.S. tax system have many of the key ingredients to fuel economic expansion: a business tax rate that will make the U.S. competitive around the world; provisions to free U.S. companies to bring back profits earned overseas; and, importantly, tax relief for the middle class."
"I believe tax reform will have both short and long-term benefits. In the short term, we already are seeing some companies increasing capital expenditures, hiring and raising wages."
"Some argue that the added cash flow going to dividends and buybacks is a negative – it is not. It simply represents capital finding a higher and better use than the current owner has with it. And that higher and better use will be reinvestment in companies, innovation, R&D or consumption. Thinking this is a bad thing is just wrong. Tax reform’s real benefit will be the long-term cumulative effect of retained and reinvested capital in the United States, which means more companies, innovation and employment will stay in this country."
"Importantly, as long as rates are rising because the economy is strengthening and inflation is contained, it is reasonable to expect that the reversal of QE will not be painful. The benefits of a strong economy are more important than the negative impact from modest increases in interest rates."
"I believe that many people underestimate the possibility of higher inflation and wages, which means they might be underestimating the chance that the Federal Reserve may have to raise rates faster than we all think. While in the past, interest rates have been lower and for longer than people expected, they may go higher and faster than people expect. If this happens, it is useful to look at how the table is set – what are all the things that are different or better or worse than during prior crises, particularly the last one – and try to think through the possible effects."
Uncertainty of QE
"One scenario that we must be prepared for is the possibility that the reversal of quantitative easing (QE) by the world’s central banks — in a new regulatory environment — will be different from what people expect."
"Since QE has never been done on this scale and we don’t completely know the myriad effects it has had on asset prices, confidence, capital expenditures and other factors, we cannot possibly know all of the effects of its reversal. We have to deal with the possibility that at one point, the Federal Reserve and other central banks may have to take more drastic action than they currently anticipate – reacting to the markets, not guiding the markets"
Passive Investing and ETF's
"Far more money than before (about $9 trillion of assets, which represents about 30% of total mutual fund long-term assets) is managed passively in index funds or ETFs (both of which are very easy to get out of). Some of these funds provide far more liquidity to the customer than the underlying assets in the fund, and it is reasonable to worry about what would happen if these funds went into large liquidation.
"It would be a reasonable expectation that with normal growth and inflation approaching 2%, the 10-year bond could or should be trading at around 4%. And the short end should be trading at around 2½% (these would be fairly normal historical experiences). And this is still a little lower than the Fed is forecasting under these conditions. It is also a reasonable explanation (and one that many economists believe) that today’s rates of the 10-year bond trading below 3% are due to the large purchases of U.S. debt by the Federal Reserve (and others)."
"This situation is completely reversing. Sometime in the next year or so, many of the major buyers of U.S. debt, including the Federal Reserve, will either stop their buying or reverse their purchases (think foreign exchange managers or central banks in Japan or China and Europe). So far, only one central bank, the Federal Reserve, has started to reverse QE – and even that in a minor way. However, by the end of this year, the Fed has indicated it might reduce its holding of Treasuries by up to $150 billion a quarter. And finally, the U.S. government will need to sell more than $250 billion a quarter to fund its deficit."
"... we could be going into a situation where the Fed will have to raise rates faster and/ or sell more securities, which certainly could lead to more uncertainty and market volatility. Whether this would lead to a recession or not, we don’t know – but even that is not the worst case. If growth in America is accelerating, which it seems to be, and any remaining slack in the labor markets is disappearing – and wages start going up, as do commodity prices – then it is not an unreasonable possibility that inflation could go higher than people might expect. As a result, the Federal Reserve will also need to raise rates faster and higher than people might expect. In this case, markets will get more volatile as all asset prices adjust to a new and maybe not-so-positive environment."
"Overall, technology is the greatest thing that has ever happened to mankind. It is the reason why we enjoy our high living standard. It is staggering how our lives have changed when compared with 100 years ago. We live longer and work less; we are healthier and safer; and during that time period, billions of people have been pulled out of poverty."
".. our vibrant economy has always found a way to adjust to job loss by creating new jobs and sometimes changing the way we work by reducing work days and work hours.
"We know technology has been a great force, and for the benefit of mankind, that force should be left unleashed. In the event that it creates change faster in the future than it has in the past – and the economy is unable to adjust jobs fast enough – the best protection is continual workforce training, education and re-education, supplemented by income assistance and relocation."
Trade & Global Engagement
"Global engagement, trade and immigration — America’s role in the world is critical."
"As a nation, we cannot isolate ourselves any more than we can stem the ocean’s tide."
"Any system created by humans, however, is ultimately fallible. Sustaining the current order and ensuring its longevity mean acknowledging its flaws."
"Retreating from the world is not the solution, nor is burning down the current system and starting anew. At the same time, we cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the real pressures millions of families face at the hands of globalization, technological advances and other factors."
"We should acknowledge many of the legitimate complaints around trade. Tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade are often not fair; intellectual property is frequently stolen; and the rights to invest in and own companies in some countries, in many cases, are not equal. Countries commonly subsidize state-owned enterprises. When the U.S. administration talks about “free” and “fair,” it essentially means the same on all counts. This is not what has existed. It is not unreasonable for the United States to press ahead for more equivalency."
"China has realized significant economic and employment gains since joining the WTO in 2001. China was expected to continue on an aggressive path of opening up its economy, but this has happened at a much slower pace than most nations expected. Now, more than 16 years later, it has the second-largest economy in the world and is home to 20% of the Fortune 500 companies, yet it still considers itself a “developing” nation that should not be subject to the same WTO standards as the United States and other “developed” countries."
"Anything that starts to resemble a trade war creates risk and uncertainty to the global economic system."
I don't think that it needs to be said how remarkably similar Jamie Dimon's thinking is to other great Business and Investment Masters. We have written about their collective emphasis on innovative thinking and learning from mistakes, understanding non-linearity and volatility, whilst avoiding things like bureaucracy and an over reliance on models many times before. And this is not a coincidence; these are important fundamentals that each of these Masters value as the reason for their success. And the good news is that you can access this learning without having to have gained the many years of experience each has had to undergo to obtain it in the first place. Lucky you! I strongly recommend reading the entirety of Jamie's letter - it is both insightful and educational and should add as much value to you as it has to me.