Merrill Now Looks Worth the Trouble B of A Took

By Lepro, Sara | American Banker, May 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

Merrill Now Looks Worth the Trouble B of A Took


Lepro, Sara, American Banker


Byline: Sara Lepro

Letting the numbers speak for themselves, Bank of America Corp. has sent a message to anyone still disgruntled over its $29.1 billion purchase of Merrill Lynch & Co. And that message is: "I told you so."

B of A's investment banking, sales and trading, and wealth management businesses - areas that got a boost from the January 2009 Merrill deal - have provided the rare bright spots in the still-struggling bank's recent quarterly results.

Not to say the past two years, four months and two days have been smooth. But many analysts call the seemingly star-crossed union a success, even accounting for the difficulty in determining how much the storied Wall Street firm's legacy assets are contributing to companywide profit, given its integration with other operations.

Without Merrill, B of A would be a very different company - and worse off for it, they say.

Merrill "really gives B of A what they would desperately be missing right now, and that's the global markets," said Jeff Harte, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill and Partners. "Merrill Lynch really does bring in some of the international capital markets that are doing OK in this operating environment."

Within the global banking and markets division, investment banking income jumped 24% from the first quarter of last year, to $1.51 billion. Sales and trading revenue, though down sharply from a year earlier when results were strong industrywide, nearly doubled from the fourth quarter, to $4.9 billion.

And the only one of B of A's six business divisions to report increased revenue year over year in the first quarter was the wealth and investment management division, the unit that includes Merrill's "thundering herd" of brokers. Its revenue rose 11%, to $4.49 billion.

Bank of America would not provide executives for interviews, but a spokesman said the global banking and markets and global wealth and investment management divisions "no doubt ... contributed in a meaningful way to Bank of America's overall performance" in the first quarter.

"From a financial standpoint, the numbers show that the acquisition is doing exactly as we intended it to," he said.

STORM OF PROTEST

Against the bitter backlash to the deal from investors and the public, Bank of America argued that the Merrill acquisition (as well as its purchase of troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp.) would pay off in due time.

"I am confident history will show our actions in operating and building Bank of America positioned us for future success," then-Chief Executive Kenneth D. Lewis said in November 2009, shortly before he handed the reins to CEO Brian Moynihan.

It was a message that fell on deaf ears. The early days of the acquisition were marred by investor claims that B of A withheld pertinent information about Merrill's mounting losses and executive bonuses.

There were also questions - and subsequent congressional hearings - over whether B of A tried to back out of the deal, was pressured into it by the government, and knowingly put taxpayer dollars at risk, since the government agreed to chip in $20 billion to support the acquisition.

For many market watchers though, these issues were simply a noisy distraction.

"It grabbed a lot of headline news originally, but none of that really had anything to do with whether it was going to be a successful acquisition," said Marty Mosby, a managing director at Guggenheim Securities LLC. "A lot of the initial things we saw as hiccups or bumps in the road were really just part of the transition."

Some of the Merrill-related matters have been settled. In February of 2010, the bank won court approval of a $150 million payout to settle claims by the Securities and Exchange Commission that B of A misled investors in the deal. (But that same month, then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sued Lewis and former Chief Financial Officer Joe Price. …

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