Bank of America has managed to step into the kimchee several times over the past couple of months, an achievement that only warms the hearts of crisis communications professionals. First came the abortive settlement of $10 billion or so in put-back claims by some large investors. The State of New York and anyone else paying attention intervened. Settlement is now mostly muerto in political terms, although the big investors are still paying the big lawyers to soldier on in hope of forcing a settlement on all parties. Only in New York are such things possible.
Then came the decision by Bank America CEO Brian Moynihan to impose a $5 per month fee on ATM transactions, this in response to the Dodd-Frank law which cuts about half of the profits for big banks in the electronic payments market. Consumers reacted in rage to the announcement, which arguably helped to catalyze the Occupy Wall Street movement. Truth is that the big bank’s cartel control in payments is under assault by more than Congress. Think technology, Apple and Google, and stay tuned for a future post on the payments revolution. Steve Jobs does get the last laugh on the big banks.
Most recently Bank America drew attention to itself by disclosing that it had moved all of the derivatives footings from its Merrill Lynch subsidiary to the lead bank, Bank of America N.A. Bloomberg ran the first story, reporting “BofA Said to Split Regulators Over Moving Merrill Derivatives to Bank Unit.” This report led to comments and reports claiming that the Fed, by allowing this move, had somehow impaired the national patrimony and violated Section 23A of the Federal Reserve Act. Section 23A is among the more bizarre parts of the Fed’s enabling law and governs transactions between banks and affiliates.
Bill Black of University of Kansas City told me that the Bank America move was not merely an administrative exercise. “Here, B of A was not the counterparty,” says Black. “The 23A issue is moving an exposure [from Merrill Lynch] that is in trouble to the insured institution, apparently at book value, from an uninsured affiliate. That should be an easy call: ‘No.’ The Fed cares about BHCs and is institutionally primed to say yes to this kind of deal, while the FDIC is institutionally primed to protect the FDIC insurance fund.”
While I am sympathetic to concerns about potential losses to the FDIC bank insurance fund, the fact is that FDIC can reject any contract between any party and a failed bank. Truth to tell, however, such changes in the counterparty for OTC derivatives exposures are not that surprising for people who follow the securities industry. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, et al have moved their swaps business “in the bank” long ago. As Bloomberg notes, 99% of all of JPMorgan’s swap book flows through the lead bank. And yes, the Merrill business was particularly exotic, but keeping it in Merrill running through the smaller, FDIC insured Merrill depositories would probably be more of a risk to the Bank America group.
So the real question is why now? Susan Webber of Aurora Advisers, in her Yves Smith nom de plume on Naked Capitalism, commented on the motives behind and timing of the change:
You can argue that this is just normal business, the other big banks have their derivatives operations largely in the depositary. But BofA has owned Merrill for over a year and a half, and didn’t undertake this move until it was downgraded. Goldman and Morgan Stanley remaining big players in this business and don’t have a large depositary. If this was all normal business, BofA would have done this a while ago, and not in response to market pressure, and they would have gotten the FDIC on board. The way this was done says something is amiss.
Correct. To my earlier post regarding the need for a restructuring at BAC, “Housing, debt ceilings & zombie banks,” the move to put the derivatives exposures of Merrill Lynch under the lead bank could be preparatory to a Chapter 11 filing by the parent company. The move by Fannie Mae to take a large chunks of loans out of BAC, the efforts to integrate parts of Merrill Lynch into the bank units earlier this year, and now the wholesale shift of derivatives exposure all suggest a larger agenda.
I don’t have any access to inside skinny, but what I see suggests to this investment banker that a restructuring may impend at Bank of America. In the event, that is good news in a sense that this continuing distraction to the financial markets will be headed for a final resolution.