The loss of Washington Mutual is a very big, very bad deal for the Seattle region. Its scope is just beginning to sink in. Large, locally run public companies are a major civic asset, as they attract talent, develop leaders by testing them on local charitable boards, and have a real stake in the broader prosperity of a region that is their home.
Consider another point. If another bank had bought WaMu in an orderly way, rather than the sudden swoop of FDIC and the shotgun marriage to JPMorgan Chase, the acquirer would have negotiated with WaMu's board and made promises about reaching out to the community and made pledges of support to such causes as ArtsFund and United Way. There would be more reason to be humane in the elimination of jobs. There would be an effort to buy local love, spreading contributions around.
Not in this case. About all that happened was a crisp phone call to Mayor Greg Nickels. Here's the mayor's office account:
Last night Mayor Greg Nickels received a phone call from James Dimon, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, which has acquired Washington Mutual Bank. During their discussion, Dimon assured the mayor that customers' deposits are secure, bank branches will remain open and the same employees who served customers yesterday will be serving them again today and in the future. Dimon and the mayor also discussed JPMorgan Chase's new presence in Seattle and agreed to continue talking as the bank's future plans unfold.
"While I am saddened by the news that a Seattle institution such as Washington Mutual no longer exists, I am glad to welcome JPMorgan Chase to our community. I look forward to a long and productive relationship with our newest corporate citizen. JPMorgan Chase has a reputation for being a good corporate citizen everywhere it operates and I am confident that depositors are in good hands."
Pretty minimal promises. One wonders if the Mayor still feels proud of the way he moved mountains to make sure WaMu would build its new headquarters in downtown Seattle, rather than in another city, accelerating the Seattle Art Museum's plans for a downtown expansion as part of the hurry-up deal. Meanwhile, James Dimon looks like one relentless cost-cutter, described by Jon Talton in The Seattle Times as running lean and mean operations in places such as Arizona and Chicago.
The seizure and sale of WaMu dramatizes the sea change in Seattle's corporate headquarters. The famous old companies such as Washington Mutual and other local banks, Safeco, Puget Energy, Boeing, and Weyerhaueser have changed significantly, yet these are the companies that traditionally anchor local charities and civic organizations. Our large retailers, Costco, Amazon, Nordstrom, and Starbucks, are strong but very globalized. The tech giants are still obviously strong, but they normally operate in separate universes from civic Seattle. (If Microsoft takes some of the WaMu office space downtown, as some predict, that might help to bind them closer to civic affairs.)
Our economic future, as of today, has a whole new key signature: tech and other intellectual industries, public health, foundations, and big-brand retailers. Our civic future, in terms of jobs, community leadership, and charities, is much less bright.