DealZone

Bank of America’s Chalice: Poison or Red Bull?

For months, as he endured hearings on Capitol Hill and fought off a series of lawsuits, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis trudged through a post-apocalyptic financial landscape against a steady drumbeat of questions about his future. The deal he had called “the strategic opportunity of a lifetime” — his purchase/salvage of Merrill Lynch — had swung from an act of patriotism, keeping the American way of banking from utter ruin, to a scandal over Merrill losses and bonuses.

Perhaps he should have seen the writing on the walls of the vacant houses financed by Countrywide, the mortgage lender Lewis purchased/salvaged just six months before the Merrill deal. The two transactions may have been strategic gems, but they were laced with political poison as the economy floundered toward its dramatic deleveraging and taxpayers pumped $20 billion into Bank of America to fund the Merrill deal.

“It was only a matter of time,” Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University’s business school, told Jon Stempel. “There is too much collateral damage.” As Stempel reports, Lewis spent north of $130 billion on acquisitions, including FleetBoston Financial Corp, the credit card issuer MBNA Corp, LaSalle Bank Corp, Countrywide, Charles Schwab Corp’s U.S. Trust private banking unit, and Merrill. In buying Merrill, he added a giant investment bank to what was already the largest U.S. retail bank, credit card issuer and mortgage provider. (Wells Fargo & Co has since become No. 1 in mortgages.)

Lewis plans to be gone by the end of the year and leaves no immediate successor, so Bank of America has only a few months to figure out who to anoint. Though his demise is a cautionary tale, odds are good that the bank’s worst days are behind it. An incoming chief can blame Lewis for any ill-conceived agreements surrounding Merrill. More importantly, with economic recovery apparently at hand, Lewis’ deals of a lifetime have a better chance than ever of paying off.

Lewis Common Denominator

DEALS/Given his bank gobbled up the biggest broker on Wall Street and the biggest mortgage lender in the country, one can be forgiven for thinking Bank of America‘s Ken Lewis is talking his book. After all, going on CNBC and sounding confident is his primary role right now, with the days ticking down to the release of first-quarter results on April 20 and the bank’s annual meeting nine days later.

In the network’s lengthy interview, there wasn’t much said about shareholder pressure to unseat him after eight years at the helm of the bank. And, having taken $45 billion of federal bailout money and absorbed Merrill Lynch and Countrywide, he had little incentive to talk about bold measures at this point.

The Wall Street Journal says Lewis is set to sell the bank’s Columbia Management unit and may be looking to unload First Republic Bank, though it is not considering a sale of its stake in hedge fund BlackRock. While he spoke earnestly about repaying taxpayers, repeating his regret at having tapped TARP as heavily as he did, Lewis said it would be several quarters before the bank could do so.

Signs of sovereign life

ubs.jpgSovereign wealth funds were thought to be nearly extinct sources of capital for the crumbling western banks. But life finds a way. The Government of Singapore Investment Corp, one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, said it would subscribe to UBS‘s rights issue. A GIC spokeswoman declined to provide the value for the transaction but said it currently owns 0.4 percent in UBS common stock. It controls 9.54 percent of the voting rights in UBS. The fund invested 11 billion Swiss francs ($11 billion) in mandatory convertible notes in UBS last December, after the bank’s U.S. housing crisis losses. In January, GIC invested $6.88 billion in Citigroup. Its sister fund Temasek Holdings pumped $5 billion into Merrill Lynch. GIC says on its website that it manages well above $100 billion but some analysts estimate the figure is closer to $300 billion.

The U.S. Federal Reserve Board approved Bank of America Corp‘s acquisition of Countrywide Financial Corp, the nation’s largest mortgage lender. Bank of America agreed in January to pay $4 billion for Countrywide, a California-based firm that helped fuel a multi-year housing boom that went bust when risky loans to shaky borrowers began to fail. In a statement, the federal regulator said it considered many comments for and against the bank buyout and “has considered carefully the financial factors of the proposal.” The Fed also said that it vetted about 770 individual comments on the proposed takeover and the views of many other stakeholders.

Applied Materials has approached beleaguered Dutch semiconductor equipment maker ASM International to buy a significant part of its business for $400 million to $500 million. Shares in ASMI jumped as much as 23 percent to an eight-month high after the company said its U.S. rival had expressed interest in two of its businesses that make machines to deposit thin films of materials on silicon wafers. ASMI, which is locked in a dispute with activist investors who are trying to sack its chief executive, said a divestment would have major implications for its strategy.