I almost couldn't believe it when I heard that JP Morgan Chase was going to do a live Twitter Q&A with the public – you know, all those people around the world they've been bending over and robbing for, oh, the last decade or so. On the all-time list of public relations screw-ups, it's hard to say where this decision by America's most hated commercial bank (with apologies to Bank of America, which probably finishes a 49ers-like very close second this year) to engage the enraged public on Twitter ranks. For sure, anyway, it's right up there with Abercrombie and Fitch's rollout of thong underwear for 10 year-olds and the $440,000 afterparty AIG executives threw for themselves at the St. Regis Resort in Monarch Beach, California after securing a federal bailout.
Chase execs probably thought they were going to be inundated with questions, like, "What steps can I take to try to become as totally awesome as all of you?" This one can infer from the self-satisfied language of their announcing Tweet, which read:
What career advice would you ask a leading exec at a global firm? Tweet a Q using #AskJPM. On 11/14 a $JPM leader takes over @JPMorgan
Only on Wall Street would a bank that's about to pay out the biggest settlement in the history of settlements unironically engage the public, expecting ordinary people to sincerely ask one of their top-decision makers for career advice. The notion that this was their idea of reaching out to the public in a moment of public relations crisis – we'll take questions now on how you can become just as successful as us! – was doomed to be hilarious, and it turned out to be that and more.
Chase trotted out Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee to be pushed into the social media buzz-saw. Lee was an excellent choice for this role. As one of the world's leading Leveraged Buyout (LBO) pioneers, Lee is a human bridge symbolically connecting two different and equally loathsome eras in Wall Street iniquity – the Gordon Gekko/LBO Eighties and Nineties, and the price-rigging, bubble-making, steal-everything-not-nailed-down era covering the Wall Street of today. From the public's perspective, Lee basically represents the banker who foreclosed on your house and the guy who liquidated your factory in a deal financed by junk bonds, all in one.
Unsurprisingly, the public barraged him with abusive Tweets, and the bank ultimately had to cancel the Q&A.
What's so hilarious about some of the anger-Tweets Chase received is that the authors didn't even have to be gratuitous, or stretch the truth, in order to find a sore spot. I like this one by "Downtown Josh Brown" at @ReformedBroker:
I have Mortgage Fraud, Market Manipulation, Credit Card Abuse, Libor Rigging and Predatory Lending AM I DIVERSIFIED? #AskJPM
Adam Coleman @AdamColeman had a more blunt question:
Can I have my house back?
But my favorite of all came from Kevin Roose @kevinroose:
Would you rather negotiate with 1 horse-sized Eric Holder, or 100 duck-sized Eric Holders? #AskJPM
(Incidentally, I'd go with 1 horse-sized Eric Holder – even in horse size, he'd go down like that stallion Alex Karras's Mongo punched out in Blazing Saddles.)
Anyway, this whole thing spun so totally out of control that there's already a YouTube sensation video of Stacey Keach reading the tweets with perfect Inside the Actors' Studio gravitas. And it's much, much funnier than it would have been even if William Shatner had done it. Check it out:
They pulled this disastrous stunt at a strange time. Chase is now facing serious troubles even apart from the upcoming, yet-to-be-concluded $13-billion settlement. The bank not long ago disclosed that it was under investigation in the ballooning probe into manipulation in the Foreign Exchange markets, a probe that will almost certainly swallow up many of the world's biggest banks before it's done.
The Forex mess is on par with the Libor disaster, and just like the Libor case, we will eventually be treated to a remarkable education into exactly how fragile the price-setting process for just about everything in the world is.
In Libor, we learned that some of the world's largest banks had been serially monkeying with world interest rates for years, dating back perhaps as far as 1991. In this case, the allegations are a bit more complicated, but center around a similar phenomenon – benchmark rates that are set based upon information easily manipulated by the very companies that stand to benefit most from it. In this case, there are five banks that collectively make up about 47 percent of the trading in the $5 trillion-a-day Forex market, and executives from those five banks were dumb enough to leave written records of what appear to be attempts to manipulate benchmark rates in an Instant Message group these idiots actually nicknamed "The Cartel."
Chase's chief dealer in London, Richard Usher, went on leave a few weeks ago, reportedly in connection with this mess. Expect the bank to end up eating yet another a massive plate of media unpleasantness once all of this Forex stuff comes out – and remember, this would be on top of that $13 billion settlement Chase reportedly is negotiating to cover a series of misdeeds from the 2000s.
The weird PR gambit mirrors the even weirder tone-deafness that may be holding up the settlement deal. The bank's seemingly crazy insistence upon trying to get the FDIC to pay for the potential liability of its acquistion, Washington Mutual, is one of those things that nobody who actually thought about how the public might respond to such a move would ever think to do. Chase has an opportunity to crawl out from under a giant pile of liabilities just by writing a check, and instead they're haggling, trying to get the public to pick up a big part of the bill. It's nuts, just like handing out career advice on Twitter in the middle of a Union-Carbide-scale PR disaster is nuts.
P.S. As noted on Twitter, I'm offering a Jamie Dimon t-shirt to the author of the best "J.P. Morgan Chase Q&A Fiasco" haiku. I'll announce the winner Monday, and please, if you win, don't forget to send me a mailing address. It took weeks to send out my Tom Friedman hand grenades last time.