Unstructured Finance

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 joins NY artist’s Wall Street rogues’ gallery

His past subjects have included Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, AIG’s Hank Greenberg and Bear Stearns Jimmy Cayne.  So when Brooklyn-based artist Geoffrey Raymond, 55, decided to do a portrait of Ken Lewis it wasn’t exactly something to celebrate for the embattled Bank of America CEO.

Like a grim reaper of high finance, Raymond was proudly exhibiting his latest work on a balmy Wednesday afternoon outside Bank of America’s new Manhattan tower. His latest is a rendition of the now-famous photo from Lewis’ Feb. 11, 2009 testimony before Congress.

Lewis is downcast, his scowl on full display.

Raymond’s art is an interactive experience — he encourages people to write on the portraits, venting their frustration, and Lewis’ was no exception.

BAC to the Future

Now that the dark days of TARP force-feedings, congressional hearings and ill-conceived mergers are behind it, Bank of America is getting back to the business of expanding in the world’s most enduring pot of fabled gold, China. The bank sent a memo around saying it had rehired a China hand to head its corporate finance business there.

Wang Bing, who worked for Merrill Lynch between 2004 and 2008 in various management roles, including dealmaking in China, is back with Bank of America-Merrill Lynch as a managing director, according to the memo. On Thursday, we reported that Bank of America plans to set up a wholly owned subsidiary in China to bolster its corporate, investment banking and wealth management businesses.

In May, Bank of America sold $7.3 billion worth of shares in China Construction Bank. It needed the cash, so turning its back on such a long-term position made sense at the time. The news this week is hardly as dramatic, in scope or in value, but it is significant. If nothing else, it shows the bank trying to get back to the business of anticipating global growth. It will be interesting to see if the bank is any more effective at growing in China as a local business rather than as a partner with big, Beijing-favored China Construction Bank.

Crying Uncle (Sam)

While Wall Street banks pick themselves up from the mat and start putting together the billions they owe Washington for having saved the country’s financial system from utter ruin, the government’s long knives appear to still be plenty sharp for the two biggest casualties, Citi and Bank of America. Why not? These are also two of the least likely to quickly emerge from the bailout.

The FDIC is reportedly trying to unseat Citi’s CEO Vikram Pandit, Bank of America’s Ken Lewis is likely headed back to Capitol Hill next week for another grilling, and adding a little spice to the mix is news that the SEC has charged former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo with fraud.

Countrywide was bought by Bank of America for $2.5 billion last July, after it appears Mozilo started dumping shares in his own company, of which he is alleged to have written, “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Goldman sells China

Goldman Sachs, putting together the pieces of its TARP repayment, is taking a page from Bank of America’s book and selling off at least some of its China exposure. The stake of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is being sold at a discount and should raise $1.9 billion – or about a fifth of what it owes in TARP.

Goldman, along with Morgan Stanley and others applied last week to repay the government. This may have more to do with Chinese bank assets being big and, presumably, more liquid than others Goldman has in its vast pool of assets. A more alarming analysis could be that asset quality at Chinese banks is as bad as it ever was.

Interesting that news of the sale should come from a bank that launched so many careers at the U.S. Treasury just as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner touches down in China.

Post Traumatic Stress Test Order

A week ago, when the Fed and Treasury mesmerized the financial world with the results of “stress tests” and capital-raising targets for banks, nobody spent much time asking “what if they can’t raise the money?” There was a sense that authorities had washed away enough uncertainty in the sector to satisfy investors. In short order, healthier institutions started raising capital. Those that didn’t need any stepped up efforts to rid themselves of onerous state support.

Bank of America shares are on a tear after the bank raised nearly $13.5 billion through a stock sale. Along with money it raised by selling part of its stake in China Construction Bank, this put Bank of America about half way to filling its stress-test gap.

But when Regions Financial, a large U.S. Southeast regional bank that was stress-tested, announced plans this morning to raise $1.25 billion through stock offerings — also about half of what federal regulators told it to raise — investors balked, sending its stock down more than 8 percent.

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.

Bank of America’s stalwart position in China

FINANCIAL-BANKOFAMERICA/Ordered by the federal government to find $33.9 billion of capital, Bank of America‘s Ken Lewis seemed to be acting the part of the visionary global business hawk yesterday when he detailed plans to retain a large stake in China Construction Bank. “It’s a strategic partner, and we always want to have a very large ownership position,” Lewis said on a conference call hosted by Calyon Securities.

A few hours later, the bank sold a block of 13.5 billion CCB shares for $7.3 billion, according to a source directly involved in the deal. A lock-up period on the block expired last Thursday. The rest of the bank’s CCB stake — about 10.6 percent — is still locked up, and will be until Aug. 29, 2011.

The China investment may be a great long-term opportunity, but Bank of America is facing severe short-term pressure to raise funds, so a lesser Lewis might have admitted he would have sold more if he could have, but his hands were tied. While no doubt making money on the initial investments it made in 2005, Bank of America has been unloading its CCB stake at a discount to market prices since January.

Did you just feel a bottom?

USA-FED/BERNANKENow that the stress test results are in and green shoots of economic promise abound, a great gush of lending is going to come spilling out of banks’ lending spigots, right? Wrong.

As Kristina Cooke reports, “While banks may be less hesitant to lend to each other if they feel their rivals’ books have been credibly vetted, that does not translate into confidence to make new loans to small businesses and consumers.”

Worse, although money is cheap at the Fed – well, cheap in terms of interest, if not terms – banks may be the only businesses that enjoy any thaw in credit conditions. Michael Feroli, economist at JPMorgan, says the still sickly state of the economy means many borrowers’ creditworthiness has dropped, while demand for new loans has waned.

Uncertainty principles

DEALS/Faced with a $34 billion hole uncovered in the stress test, Bank of America might have little choice but to dump its investment in China Construction Bank, China’s second-largest bank. That would give it about a quarter of the $34 billion of additional capital we are told it needs to fill a yawning gap in its foundation. A lock-up on a portion of the stake ends tomorrow, and the opportunity may be too good for embattled CEO Ken Lewis to pass up, though the bank has plenty of incentive to hold onto the stake.

Citigroup’s Keith Horowitz raised his price target on the bank, citing the end of uncertainty. He also says the total need at the 19 stress-tested banks will be $75 billion, with Bank of America accounting for the lion’s share.

At this point, with hundreds of billions of public dollars having been heaved at the likes of AIG, Citi, Bank of America, automakers, auto suppliers, life insurers, etc. that number is hardly shocking. And with the S&P having recovered 25 percent of its recession-fueled losses, is it time to expect investors to become more aggressively exposed to the end of uncertainty?