What Is Jamie Dimon Thinking?

Of all the big bank executives, none writes an annual letter quite like Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) . While it's obviously structured to put the bank in the best light possible, its organization and content nevertheless reveals what the nation's preeminent banker is thinking about his own business, the industry, and the economy.

Dimon's most recent letter, released earlier this week, revolves around three central concepts: the condition of JPMorgan, the ongoing legal and regulatory changes in the industry, and the prospects for the global economy going forward.

The first point centers on a goal Dimon has echoed for years now -- that of a "fortress" balance sheet. When it comes to banking, this is a function of liquidity and capital, both of which have gained in importance since the financial crisis. The idea here is that, even if JPMorgan were to be besieged by another financial crisis, it would have the means to retrench and survive the onslaught of frozen capital markets and elevated default rates.

Although it's probably impossible to say what is actually sufficient in terms of both liquidity and capital given a severe economic scenario akin to the last crisis, there's no question that JPMorgan has a considerable amount of both. Of its $2.4 trillion in assets, a full $741 billion are so-called "high-quality liquid assets," meaning they are "super safe and can provide cash to the company should it need cash to survive." In terms of capital, meanwhile, it handily satisfies all of the current regulatory capital requirements imposed on the industry.

The second concept in Dimon's letter, concerning the evolving regulatory landscape, contains the meat of the conversation. His point here is twofold. First, to articulate the significance of the changes. And second, to share JPMorgan's ongoing efforts at compliance.

The magnitude of the changes simply can't be overemphasized. "Fully complying with and adapting to the new world is a daunting task and will require enormous effort and energy on the part of all of us at JPMorgan," Dimon wrote. "Never before have we focused so much time, technology, money and brainpower on such an enterprisewide undertaking."

The numbers he shares are staggering. The bank has hired 13,000 employees to support its regulatory, compliance, and control efforts across the entire firm, and it will have incurred $2 billion in additional expenses since 2012 as a result.

It's with this in mind that Dimon issued what may turn out to be a prophetic warning (emphasis added):

If you have to hold higher capital and higher liquidity and some of your costs are higher -- all things being equal -- your returns obviously will come down. Many analysts have estimated that the average effect of the higher capital, liquidity and costs on banks will reduce their return on equity substantially below fair market returns. These banks possibly would need to take dramatic action -- shareholders would not accept poor market returns for long.

Finally, Dimon concludes his letter on an optimistic note by cataloguing a laundry list of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Among other things, world GDP is projected to grow an average of 7% per year over the next decade, mass urbanization trends around the globe will require an estimated $57 trillion in infrastructure investments between now and 2030, and 7,000 companies with revenue greater than $1 billion are expected to develop between 2010 and 2025.

What's the takeaway from Dimon's letter? If there's one thing, it's that the banking industry is in the midst of a seismic upheaval triggered by the new regulatory and legal landscape. For a bank like JPMorgan, it seems reasonable to conclude that the enhanced requirements may further entrench it at the top of the industry. But for others, it may do just the opposite.

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