Iconic Tour

Lessons from the CEO Warren Buffett turns to for guidance

Tim Mullaney, special to CNBC.com
Warren Buffett with Jamie Dimon in 2012.
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Everyone reads Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett's shareholder letters for guidance on management, but to whom does Buffett turn for business wisdom? JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon.

The 60-year-old Dimon is, perhaps, less cuddly than the 86-year-old Oracle of Omaha, and Dimon's shareholder meetings aren't a weekend-long extravaganza highlighted by Dairy Queen. But, like Buffett, Dimon uses his often quite long annual shareholder letters to muse about the best way to manage companies and, of course, to manage banks specifically.

Dimon's latest letter to JPMorgan shareholders was released on Tuesday, and included some comments on how Trump's agenda may benefit the U.S., without naming Trump specifically. In it the bank CEO muses on issues far afield the core bank business — the future of the United States and some of the societal forces he thinks are holding the nation back.

Dimon points to expensive wars (trillions of dollars since 2001), runaway student loan debt (up from $200 billion to $900 billion since 2010), felony convictions (20 million) for minor offenses and an "alarming" number of advanced degrees in STEM fields (40 percent) being awarded to students who have no legal way of remaining in the United States.

"Any one of these non-economic factors is fairly material in damaging America's effort to achieve healthy growth," Dimon writes.

But the JPMorgan chief also opines on plenty of core bank issues in this year's letter, including what he believes is as much as a trillion-dollar opportunity lost in the mortgage market.

Here are some of Dimon's best lessons from over the years for business leaders.

1. Be honest about risks facing your business and how you're preparing.

Much of Dimon's reputation for great shareholder letters comes from his March 2007 edition, part of the bank's annual report on the year 2006, in which he warned that some kind of break in the housing boom was likely coming.

"In the financial services world, it is easy to stretch for growth by reducing underwriting standards or taking on increasingly higher levels of risk. But such an approach is foolish longer term," Dimon wrote. "For example, last year we declined to underwrite negative amortization mortgage loans and option adjustable-rate mortgages. That may have hurt our 2006 earnings a bit, but we believe it was the right decision for the company."

Dimon detailed other steps as well, like selling all the subprime mortgages the bank originated in 2006 rather than holding on to them. The message: JPMorgan saw a problem competitors glossed over and was at least trying to prepare.

2. Lobby the government, but don't complain about it.

Dimon's most recent letters — post-financial crisis — devote lots of space to the evolution of all-important capital rules for banking, but he's careful not to make too much of the issue. However the rules turn out, he says, JPMorgan will have to live with them and figure out how to make money in the environment that exists.

3. Don't pin your hopes on deals.

Dimon has made a point recently of showing shareholders how many of the bank's top-growing businesses are units it has nurtured in-house, with few if any acquisitions. In the 2014 shareholder letter, he pointed to the expansions of JPMorgan's private banking and credit card lines of business, which he invested in heavily shortly after the 2008 financial crisis.

"Most of our growth will be organic," Dimon wrote. "We have been doing this successfully for a decade — and opportunities abound."

Our ultimate goal is to think like a long-term investor ...  and manage the business relentlessly, like a great operator. ... As Thomas Edison said, 'Vision without execution is hallucination.' 
Jamie Dimon
JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO, sounding very much like Buffett

4. Be contrarian.

Dimon makes a point of using the letters to celebrate what he sees as JPMorgan's contrarian streak. His key examples are being skeptical of housing before the bust and also investing heavily in the bank's consumer business even after interest rates fell post-2008 and the near-term profitability of the business shrank. The following explanation may be technical, but it's a good example of a CEO watching a key financial metric turn against short-term profitability and resisting the urge to react.

"Quarterly earnings — even annual earnings — frequently are the result of actions taken over the past five or 10 years," Dimon wrote in 2015. "Our company continued to invest through the crisis — often when others could not — in order to capture future growth. … The best example of this is in our consumer business, where [the bank's net interest margin, or the spread between the rate it pays for deposits and what it collects on loans] has gone from 2.95 percent to 2.20 percent (from 2009 to 2014). This spread reduction has reduced our net interest income by $2.5 billion, from $10 billion to $7.5 billion — or if you look at it per account, from $240 to $180.

"Since we strongly believe this is a temporary phenomenon and we did not want to take more risk to increase our net interest margin (which we easily could have done), we continued to open new accounts. Over those years, we added 4.5 million accounts — and, in fact, very good sizable accounts. This has reduced our operating margins from 36 percent to 32 percent, but we don't care. When normal interest rates return, we believe this will add $3 billion to revenue and improve our operating margin to more than 40 percent."

5. Focus on profitability and value, not stock price.

Dimon devoted a long section of 2014's report, released in early 2015, to dissect the company's stagnant stock price. And he came away unruffled: Dimon said the problem was that investors were paying a lower multiple for shares, in part because of uncertainty over regulatory issues — which he admitted made sense. This part of his letter integrated the stock price with coverage of the bank's operating performance — which had improved, except for falling short of Dimon's goals for return on equity, a benchmark held down by stiffening capital requirements.

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"We do not manage to temporary P/E ratios — the tail should not wag the dog," Dimon wrote. "This does not mean we should not listen to what investors are saying — it just means we should not overreact to their comments — particularly if their views reflect temporary factors. While the stock market over a long period of time is the ultimate judge of performance, it is not a particularly good judge over a short period of time. A more consistent measure of value is our tangible book value, which has had healthy growth over time. ... In fact, when Mr. Market gets very moody and depressed, we think it might be a good time to buy back stock."

6. Share the spotlight.

A newer habit for Dimon is to let the heads of JPMorgan's business units write their own shareholder letters. Five subordinates got 21 pages in last year's report, covering topics like consumer banking, commercial banking, investment banking, asset management and corporate responsibility. It takes some patience to absorb it all, but there's a lot of information there.

7. The bottom-line Dimon advice that is the most 'Buffett'-like.

"Think like a long-term investor, manage like an operator," Dimon wrote in 2015.

"Our ultimate goal is to think like a long-term investor — build great franchises, strengthen moats and have good through-the-cycle financial results. Achieve the benefits of scale and eliminate the negatives. Develop great long-term achievable strategies. And manage the business relentlessly, like a great operator. Finally, continue to develop excellent management that keeps it all going. As Thomas Edison said, 'Vision without execution is hallucination.'"

By Tim Mullaney, special to CNBC.com

Updated to include details from JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon's latest annual letter to shareholders, released on Tuesday, April 4.