The news today that JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon is waiting for Goldman Sachs to announce the number of CEO Lloyd Blankfein's bonus before announcing his own comes as little surprise. The two CEOs, whose firms have been the top earners since the financial crisis, have been jockeying with each other for the title of King of the Financial Hill since the recovery in the financial sector began, and the Bonus Round may be their most important competition yet.
At stake? Optics. Obviously, neither CEO needs the money — the political capital is what's important right now, and the size of one's bonus is, contrary to the way it was in the past, inverse to one's awesomeness: The man with the smaller number is going to be regarded — by the public, the administration, everyone — as the better man.
So, the two men are circling each other like gladiators in a ring, each waiting for the other to make the first move, each of them thinking, "How can I come off better?"
Despite the fact that they've shared the odd romantic dinner together, the two CEOs are, personally, rivals. Dimon, for all of his "We Are the World" stance, is hugely competitive with Goldman. (When the two firms were jostling to pay back the TARP funds, a source said of Dimon, "he's likely 'to go batshit if Goldman is able to repay before he does.'") Both of them plant bitchy stories about each other in the financial press with the frequency of socialites calling in negative items about each other to "Page Six."
Until now, JPMorgan has been winning reputationally, obviously. They played the public relations well — putting floppy-haired Dimon out there to charm reporters with plain talk and to lunch with the president amid rumors that he may be brought in as the new Treasury secretary. Meanwhile Blankfein, bald and sarcastic, became the dark villain of the crisis, the ruler of a financial Halliburton responsible for everything from the bailout of AIG to abandoning kittens. This is his chance to make a bold move and take back the game.
In the course of history, when two powerful men have faced off against one another like this, the results have not always been good for the populace. Cities have burned, empires have fallen, etc. But has anyone ever tried to out-good someone at this level before? Maybe this absurd pissing contest will yield something awesome. Or multiple things!
For instance, Blankfein could trump the conventional wisdom that he is planning on loading himself up with stock that will appreciate considerably by instead announcing that he will donate 100 percent of said stock to Save the Children. Dimon could then counter by saying he will sponsor an entire African nation, and then Blankfein could smarmily announce that as a person who believes we should take care of America first, he'll be revamping the school system in Detroit.
We sure hope so, after all this buildup.
Update, Ha: A source tells Dealbreaker: “Goldman is the one waiting, since they have more to lose. Jamie’s not going to do it according to what Lloyd gets. Who cares if Lloyd reports $50 million, or $100 million, or $1 million? Not JPM or Jamie. They’ll go with the numbers they’ve decided on their own will go with the numbers they have.”