from Summit Notebook:

Thain says put shareholders first

John Thain says he put shareholders first and his interests second in deciding to sell Merrill Lynch to Bank of America.

Thain, speaking at the Reuters Global Finance Summit in New York, said a deal to sell a partial stake in Merrill Lynch to Goldman Sachs would have been better for him, but the sale of the entire Wall Street firm to Bank of America was the best outcome for shareholders.

Over a fateful weekend in September 2008, as Lehman hurtled toward bankruptcy, AIG floundered and the financial system looked into the abyss, Merrill held discussions with Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley for various transactions, Thain said.

Initial discussions with Bank of America involved either the sale of the entire company or a 9.9 percent stake and a multibillion credit line, the former Merrill CEO said.

With Goldman, discussions only involved the stake sale and the credit line. Discussions with Morgan Stanley about a strategic transaction were brief, he said.

Reflections on B of A’s rough year

Bank of America One public-relations lesson for Bank of America <BAC.N> after a year of crisis and a pummelling in the court of public opinion: Don’t always listen to the lawyers.
That’s the word from James Mahoney, director of communication and public policy at the country’s largest bank.
B of A has taken a beating over everything from its pay scale and lending practices to the fees it charges consumers.
It’s humbling for the institution that a year ago was the country’s “leading bank,” Mahoney told a trade conference sponsored by by Financial Research Corp of Boston.
“Two words emerged: bonus and bailout. It’s been all downhill ever since.”
He said the bank’s lawyers barred it from offering a single narrative on the decisions leading up to its takeover of the investment bank Merrill Lynch at the height of the financial crisis just over a year ago.
The lawyers fretted that executives might stray from the script during any future depositions to investigators, Mahoney said. But that left B of A exposed to a lot of attacks and with no easy way to protect its flank.
The lesson? “Don’t listen to lawyers if you’re trying too manage the public reaction.”
Mahoney had a receptive audience for a rare peek under the hood at the bank’s rough year.
While B of A sorts out its leadership with the pending departure of longtime chief executive Ken Lewis, Mahoney’s said the bank has taken more than its share of PR black eyes because of its size.
“I think we really became the target of a lot of the anger that’s out there because (the bank) is a highly visible, convenient place to vent,” he said.
(Reporting by Ross Kerber)

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.)

Who belongs in the Financial Crisis Undersung Hall of Fame? has compiled a list of unappreciated heroes of the financial crisis: “Some Good Names in a Year Gone Bad.”

Can you match up the undersung HOFers with their acts of contrarian bravery, as selected by breakingviews’ Antony Currie, Rob Cox and (formerly of Reuters) Jeffrey Goldfarb?

1. Tom Scholar

2. Jeff Kronthal

3. Harry Markopolos

4. Peter Wuffli

5. Greg Fleming

6. Jed Rakoff

A. Options trader who warned the SEC about Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme

B. Merrill Lynch executive who warned his bosses about taking on too much risk

C. Former Merrill president who convinced CEO John Thain to accept an acquisition by Bank of America

Lending CIT a hand

An almost heart-warming effort is being mustered by CIT bondholders to keep the troubled lender from getting put under the TARP or stumbling into a much-anticipated bankruptcy. Some $3 billion in survival cash is seen in the pipeline — money that could strengthen CIT’s finances and allow it more time for a debt restructuring. An announcement is expected before the markets open this morning.

What kind of terms might bondholders extract from CIT? Before TARP was modified to target executive pay for those who sought its shelter, banks such as Citigroup and then-independent investment house Merrill Lynch paid what were seen as shockingly high terms on mandatory convertible debt. They were the kind of rates Citi customers paid on credit cards; nothing like traditional bank funding rates.

So, a CIT deal could, and perhaps should, come with a variety of stringent terms. If these are effectively passed on to desperate small and medium-sized businesses that CIT serves, the cost of this rescue could be blamed for stifling the recovery.

BoA hearing: class-action fodder?

Ken LewisDennis Kucinich pointed out at a Congressional hearing Thursday that Merrill’s weekly losses in mid-November were greater than the losses in mid-December, and that Bank of America boss Ken Lewis got weekly updates on the investment bank’s losses. Lawmakers repeatedly said Lewis must have known much earlier than he claims about the heavy losses at Merrill, which lost $15.84 billion in the fourth quarter of last year.

That’s something that class action lawyers may latch on to, as they push their case over the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch deal, which hinges on what the bank disclosed and when.

Shareholders OK’d the deal on Dec. 5. Bank of America disclosed Merrill’s losses in January, after the deal closed. If shareholders knew of the losses before, the outcome could have been different.

Temasek’s long China play gets short U.S.

TEMASEK/Singapore investment vehicle Temasek cut its losses in Bank of America and ran in the first quarter, dumping a 3 percent stake, for which it took a $3 billion hair cut. Having watched its relatively high-risk investment in Merrill Lynch turn to dust, the Singapore state agency turned to firmer ground: China.

Temasek was among the investors to gobble up a stake in China Construction Bank that Bank of America sold earlier this week as it further drew in its horns from the global recovery story. Sources say the move fits with Temasek’s focus on global companies that aim to grow in Asia, noting that Bank of America is losing whatever global allure it may have bought along with Merrill’s bad assets. Getting a “gentleman’s C” in the stress test doesn’t inspire much confidence either.

However bad things get for Bank of America, it’s hard to dispel the ghosts of China’s policy banking bedrock. Though they will tell you they have been shedding dud assets from their balance sheets for years, nobody is under any illusions about either transparency or solvency of the People’s banking system. That’s not to say such investments won’t pay off. After all, as the axiom goes, no risk, no gain.

OpenTable will try to revive VC-backed IPOs


Venture capitalists wanting to take portfolio companies public have fallen on hard times. So they will be watching closely when online restaurant reservation service OpenTable, which filed for a small $40 million IPO last week, attempts to price its deal.

Last year only six companies backed by venture capitalists went public, according to Thomson Reuters data, a far cry from the 86 in 2007. And none has performed well in the aftermarket.

But San Francisco-based OpenTable, whose IPO will be led by Merrill Lynch and whose backers include VC firms Benchmark Capital and Impact Venture Partners, is betting that its recently growing business will lure investors.

Evercore gets league table boost; Lazard left in the cold

Pfizer Inc’s $68 billion deal to buy Wyeth gave boutique investment banking firm Evercore Partners a huge jump in the rankings of merger advisers, while Lazard Ltd got left on the sidelines.

One mega-deal was enough to catapult Evercore, which advised Wyeth along with Morgan Stanley, into the list of Top 10 advisers. Evercore now stands at No. 7 for the global and U.S. rankings, up from No. 24 and No. 16 in 2008, according to data from Thomson Reuters.

Morgan Stanley stands at No. 2 globally with 15 deals, and No. 3 in the United States with 10 deals, according to Thomson Reuters.

Thain, Lewis part ways

Thain and LewisJohn Thain’s out of the door as well. And one wonders if Ken Lewis could have saved himself a lot of heartache if only he had watched the action movie “Speed”.  

Sandra Bullock called it more than a decade ago. As her character says in the movie: You know, relationships that start under intense circumstances — they never last.

Thain’s departure leaves Lewis without several top executives at Merrill, which it acquired on Jan. 1 for $19.4 billion. Other top Merrill executives to recently leave include Robert McCann, who was to lead the combined brokerage, and investment banking chief Greg Fleming.