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.

That assumption appears to assume the U.S. economy is showing more than only a false bottom right now. The odd pop in housing prices here and there, and a month of somewhat less shockingly dismal auto sales figures, have convinced Lewis to buy into the recovery theory currently making its way through the markets. “We’re at a point where you’re seeing mixed signals, just small mixed signals, some housing sales a little better than you’d think, or some car sales not being quite as bad as you’d think,” he said. “It signals that you’re getting close to the bottom.”

Deals News:

* Norwegian engineering group Aker Solutions will buy shares in four companies from Aker to strengthen its position in offshore and energy, the two companies said. Aker said Aker Solutions will pay 1.39 billion Norwegian crowns ($205.9 million) for shares in the companies.

Taking the Wall St bypass

THAILAND APECRemember early last year and the year before, when the U.S. financial system won huge investments from Asian sovereign wealth funds? Those investments seemed so rich at the time, offering conversions into shares at deep discounts and the kind of interest rates banks had demanded from subprime borrowers. The biggest fear anyone on Wall Street had was some vague sense that foreign ownership of U.S. financial institutions might be somehow un-American or a threat to national security.

Nobody talks about those days much anymore. Merrill Lynch, the recipient of billions of expensive sovereign wealth fund support, was swallowed up by Bank of America. Talk of nationalization swirls around Citigroup, another sovereign wealth fund investment target throughout the stunning collapse in its share price.

Our correspondent George Chen reports China’s $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp, is shifting to natural resources, fixed income and real estate after taking big haircuts on the U.S. financial sector. The fund, headed by former Vice Finance Minister Lou Jiwei, “has drawn criticism at home over large paper losses on its combined $8.6 billion investments in U.S. private equity giant Blackstone Group and Wall Street bank Morgan Stanley,” Chen says, citing people familiar with the matter.

Ten Years Later

merrill.jpgNobody knows better than South Korea how elusive the floor can be when markets are crying fire-sale. Pushed to the wall during the Asia Crisis a decade ago, the country’s banks had their assets priced in the pennies-on-the-dollar range. Here now, with the shoe squarely on the other foot, is Korea Asset Management, a government debt clearer that says its purchase of illiquid Merrill Lynch debt securities is faltering over price. Local media reported in July that Kamco planned to raise up to 2 trillion won ($1.98 billion) to buy U.S. non-performing loans with Shinhan Bank and Mirae Asset Securities. Kamco had said it was in the process of raising about $1 billion to buy distressed mortgage assets from U.S. banks and expected double-digit returns from its investments. Hardly the kind of buying clout that Merrill faced when it agreed to sell $30.6 billion of collateralized debt obligations to a Lone Star affiliate in July for 22 cents on the dollar. If nothing else, execs at Lehman Brothers will be watching this high-stakes haggling with much nervous interest as they negotiate with another South Korean state-owned institution, Korea Development Bank, over a possible joint investment in the CDO-laden U.S. investment bank.

Other deals of the day:

* Novolipetsk Steel, the Russian steel maker owned by billionaire Vladimir Lisin, has agreed to pay $400 million in cash to acquire U.S. hot-rolled steel maker Beta Steel and expand its presence in North America.

* InBev is to hold an extraordinary shareholders meeting on Sept. 29 to vote on its planned $52 billion takeover of Anheuser Busch and related matters.