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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.