Opaque or not opaque, that is the question. At least that's how JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE:JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon and hotshot hedge-fund investor Paul Singer of Elliot Capital Management see it at the World Economic Forum, currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland.
Singer called the big banks' financial disclosures "too big, too leveraged, [and] too opaque," to which an energetic Dimon retorted: "Our 10K (S.E.C. filing) is 400 pages long. What would you like to know?"
You really expect me to read that? As far as debates go, that was a great comeback. Very snappy. I like Dimon, and I got a good chuckle out of it. But while it was a real zinger, and great for CNBC sound-bites, it also helped prove Singer's point.
What investor in the world, whether a professional like Singer or someone like you or me -- trying to save money for their kids' education or their own retirement -- has the time to sort through a 400-page S.E.C. filing and learn everything you need to know about a bank like JPMorgan, the biggest bank in the country?
And who has the financial know-how to figure out exactly what's going on in, say, JPMorgan's derivatives book, when the bank itself missed a $100 billion trade that ended up costing more than $6 billion last year, aka, the London Whale? If Jamie Dimon -- still arguably the best risk manager in banking -- and his team didn't see something like that coming, what chance do you or I have?
Big banks that feel like small banks Dimon also offered another snappy retort to Singer: "With all due respect, hedge funds are pretty opaque too." Yes, that's very true. Good luck trying to get a handle on what the average hedge fund is up to, or exactly what's going on with its balance sheet.
But Eliot Capital Management, like most hedge funds, isn't a public company. When you invest your money with a hedge fund, first of all, there had better be a lot of it. Second, the onus is on you as a wealthy, private investor to vett the company you're placing your money with. And since hedge funds are more often than not closely associated with a hot-shot like Singer, chances are what you're really vetting is the personal reputation of one of the principals.
But the rest of us -- with limited time and sans MBAs -- have to rely on the top pages of earnings reports and news coverage to make sure nothing too weird is going on behind the scenes at a bank or any other company. So sure, in the end, big banks are opaque -- at least more so than, say, a Starbucks Corporation (NASDAQ:SBUX) or a McDonald's Corporation(NYSE:MCD)'s, where the business models are extraordinarily straightforward. But some banks are, I believe, if not exactly models of clarity, more straightforward than others for the average investor looking to invest his or her money.
Take Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (NYSE:GS) . With assets of just under $1 billion, while it's not exactly a small bank, it's no JPMorgan, either, which has more than $2 billion in assets. Overall, Goldman is a much more focused and streamlined operation than JPMorgan, Citigroup Inc. (NYSE:C), or Bank of America Corp (NYSE:BAC) Even though Goldman became a bank holding company to help it survive the financial crash, it never strayed very far from its core competencies and has stayed focused on serving wealthy clients one way or another -- something a killer fourth-quarter demonstrates it's still very good at.