Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' left and Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase
Courtesy of AMPAS/Getty Images
By Stephen Gandel
February 25, 2015

These days, JPMorgan is emphasizing dog treats over derivatives.

On Tuesday, at the bank’s annual investor day, when CEO Jamie Dimon took the mic, one of the first things he told investors to do was check out one of the bank’s branches. “Around the country, people bring in their dogs and sit around for social reasons,” said Dimon. “We give out little doggie bones.”

The buzzword these days in big banking is simplicity. And on Tuesday, JPMorgan Chase executives became the latest top bankers to claim they want to be more George Bailey than, well, J.P. Morgan. The bank said it will cut $2.8 billion in expenses from its investment banking division in the next three years. About $1.5 billion of those cost reductions will come from “business simplification.”

JPMorgan (JPM) has long had one of the largest financial derivatives operations on Wall Street. The bank invented the securities that were used to bet on—and eventually against—the mortgage market. On Tuesday, Daniel Pinto, the head of JPMorgan’s investment bank, emphasized how the bank was looking to reduce its activity in one of the most complex areas of finance. Pinto said the bank would either exit or dramatically scale back its processing of over the counter derivatives transactions for clients. He said the bank also plans to “rapidly compress” its own derivatives exposure.

JPMorgan said it was reducing its derivatives operations on account of new regulations that would require the bank to set aside more capital. Also, if you want to be known as a simpler bank, derivatives is probably not the place you want to be.

The bank on Tuesday said it was looking to reduce the amount of deposits it holds for other businesses by $100 billion, cut back on the amount of lending it does to hedge funds and even close about 300 of its dog-friendly bank branches. All of this comes as an olive branch of sorts to JPMorgan’s critics, who say the bank is too big. Last month, Goldman Sachs issued a report that said JPMorgan would be worth more if it were split up. On Tuesday, though, Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, said he has no plans to do that. “We’re not going to give up investment banking for anyone, not even Richard Ramsden,” said Dimon, referring to the Goldman analyst who wrote the report.

Wall Streeters typically say they are in the business of helping clients manage sophisticated risks and transactions. Stressing simplicity is an odd sales pitch for a large bank like JPMorgan. But the problem Dimon and other top bankers have is that investment banking—in part because of new regulations and also on account of the fact that the business has change—is not as profitable as it used to be. Just four years ago, the return on equity of JPMorgan’s investment bank was nearly 20%. Now, it is half that.

Investors may accept lower return businesses as long as they are convinced that they are lower risk as well. Shares of Morgan Stanley (MS), for instance, have outperformed rivals recently, as CEO James Gorman has emphasized lower risk businesses like asset management.

Dimon seems to be getting the message. On Tuesday, he said JPMorgan was really no different than the average regional bank, just, ya know, bigger. In fact, he said this twice.

For a bank that still has a derivatives book with a notional value of $65 trillion, that statement is a stretch. But even as large as it is, JPMorgan is probably far less risky and complex than its detractors would have you believe.

Nevertheless, the notion that JPMorgan is just too big to work seems to be gaining momentum. So, if Dimon wants JPMorgan to remain in investment banking, and all of the many businesses it is in, he needs to sell simplicity. He’s trying his best.

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