Economic Outlook: Marketing a blunder

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  May 14, 2012 at 12:16 PM
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Multibillion-dollar losses at JPMorgan Chase turned into losses of personnel even as the firm's top executive kept up the apologies.

"We made a terrible, egregious mistake and there's almost no excuse for it," Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said during the weekend.

He said the bank's botched bets were "stupid" and its work "sloppy."

In a statement, Dimon said, "Ina Drew has been a great partner over her many years with our firm. Despite our recent losses in the CIO [chief investment office], Ina's vast contributions to our company should not be overshadowed by these events," a nod, perhaps, to good sportsmanship.

Drew had worked at JPMorgan for 30 years and oversaw a trading office in London that managed a portfolio worth $400 billion.

It was unclear whether the initial scapegoat for the debacle, the trader known as the "London whale" would keep his job. Regulators in Britain and the United States are looking into the loss, the estimate for which has gone from $2 billion to $2.3 billion to somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 billion, indicated in recent reports.

Marketing a blunder is an art form. Start with minimal descriptions of the damage, find a scapegoat or two and, as Dimon put it, fix the problem and move on. In some circles there is an enormous difference between $2 billion and $3 billion. If need be, ramp up the adjectives. A blunder can be upgraded to a inexcusable disaster. When the word "heinous" gets thrown in there, someone call the U.S. Justice Department.

Yahoo! Inc. is also learning how to market a mistake. "Resumegate" has gone from "inadvertent error" to a series of apologies from CEO Scott Thompson, whose falsified resume cost him his job and gave activist investor Daniel Loeb, founder of Third Point, enough leverage to claim three seats on the struggling company's board of directors, one of which will be taken by Loeb.

Thompson's apologies missed the mark, reports say. He apologized for the fallout, the distraction, the embellished resume caused, but not for the mistake itself. He then blamed a headhunting company, which turned around and said it had proof that Thompson handed them a resume with the extra college degrees listed on it.

On a sadder note, The Wall Street Journal reported Thompson told the Yahoo! board he had recently been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

The next line of headlines will describe the severance packages for the departing executives. The recent financial crisis showed that pay can be contractually protected no matter what mistakes were made. Whether Thompson lied on his resume or not may or may not be part of a prenuptial agreement with Yahoo! Drew and others at JPMorgan may be able to argue they were following orders from higher up the chain of command. Some of that has yet to be revealed.

In international markets Monday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan added 0.23 percent while the Shanghai composite index in China fell 0.6 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong lost 1.15 percent while the Sensex in India shed 0.47 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia rose 0.28 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain gave up 2.2 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany lost 2.5 percent. The CAC 40 in France lost 2.82 percent while the Stoxx Europe 600 fell 2.17 percent.

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