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Ken Lewis: Great American or Mere Corporate Pawn?

Posted by Larry Doyle on April 23, 2009 6:58 AM |

When Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, purchased Merrill Lynch last Fall did he put country first but his shareholders’ interests second? The WSJ Reports Lewis Testifies U.S. Urged Silence on Deal.

The BofA purchase of Merrill did not feel “right” to me from the outset. Why? Recall that at the time of this deal, Lehman had just failed and other investment banks’ stocks (Merrill, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs) were plummeting.  Given that dynamic, why did BofA pay a fairly sizable premium for a firm in distress? Merrill’s stock was trading somewhere in the mid-teens but BofA paid the equivalent of $29 a share. It is said that Lewis paid such a premium in order to retain the renowned Merrill retail brokerage staff, but it struck me as more directed by Uncle Sam than anything else.

In early February I questioned What Really Happened With Merrill and B of A. I summarized then that normal business decisions and strategy do not occur when operating in uncharted waters. Well, in the last two and a half months our economy and financial industry have moved into even deeper waters.

In looking back at the height of the waves swamping the Merrill ship, the WSJ report reminds us:

Under normal circumstances, banks must alert their shareholders of any materially significant financial hits. But these weren’t normal times: Late last year, Wall Street was crumbling and BofA faced intense government pressure to buy Merrill to keep the crisis from spreading. Disclosing losses at Merrill — which eventually totaled $15.84 billion for the fourth quarter — could have given BofA’s shareholders an opportunity to stop the deal and let Merrill collapse instead.

“Isn’t that something that any shareholder at Bank of America…would want to know?” Mr. Lewis was asked by a representative of New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, according to the transcript.

“It wasn’t up to me,” Mr. Lewis said. The BofA chief said he was told by Messrs. Bernanke and Paulson that the deal needed to be completed, otherwise it would “impose a big risk to the financial system” of the U.S. as a whole.

Mr. Lewis’s testimony suggests how aggressively federal regulators have been willing to behave in their fight to fix the U.S. financial system. The testimony for the first time spreads some of the blame to Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke for Mr. Lewis’s decision to keep problems at Merrill under wraps.

The immediate question I have is whether the shareholders at Bank of America can bring action against Lewis, Paulson, and Bernanke. Can the shareholders in turn bring action to remove the board at B of A?

These are questions which will likely remain unanswered. However, the mere thought that they are being raised is amazing. If ever there were an individual who held leverage over Uncle Sam it was Ken Lewis. Or did he? When Lewis indicated he wanted to slow the merger process and further review the deal, Paulson pressured him. As the WSJ reports:

Mr. Lewis described a conversation with Mr. Paulson in which the Treasury secretary made it clear that Mr. Lewis’s own job was at stake. Mr. Lewis still was considering invoking his legal right to terminate the Merrill deal. Mr. Paulson was out on a bike ride when Mr. Lewis phoned to discuss the matter, according to the transcript.

“I can’t recall if he said, ‘We would remove the board and management if you called it [off]’ or if he said ‘we would do it if you intended to.’ I don’t remember which one it was,” Mr. Lewis said. “I said, ‘Hank, let’s de-escalate this for a while. Let me talk to our board.’ “

Lewis has experienced enormous pressure from every corner. Where have Paulson, Bernanke, and now Geithner been when he needed support?

Is Ken Lewis a “great American” serving the interests of his country, or a mere pawn in the hands of a government official and central banker?

Check out additional interesting viewpoints on this topic at Memeorandum.com.

LD






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