What Did the Rescue of Merrill Lynch Get Us?

September 12th, 2013 by Phil Mattera

Ken Lewis, John ThainFive years ago at this time, only a week after the dramatic federal seizure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the next big financial bombshell landed:  the takeover of brokerage behemoth Merrill Lynch by Bank of America.

Much of the current commentary on the fifth anniversary of the financial meltdown is focusing on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with plenty of speculation on what might have happened if the feds had not let Lehman go under. But just as significant is what did occur in the wake of the shotgun marriage of Merrill and BofA.

To put things in context, let’s review the checkered history of Merrill in the years leading up to the crisis. In 1998 it had to pay $400 million to settle charges that it helped push Orange County, California into bankruptcy four years earlier with reckless investment advice. In 2002 it agreed to pay $100 million to settle charges that its analysts skewed their advice to promote the firm’s investment banking business (plus another $100 million the following year). In 2003 it paid $80 million to settle allegations relating to dealings with Enron. In 2005 industry regulator NASD (now FINRA) fined Merrill $14 million for improper sales of mutual fund shares.

Merrill, whose charging bull logo served as a symbol of Wall Street’s drive, was a key player in the issuance of the flawed subprime-mortgage-backed securities at the center of the meltdown. In an early indicator of the problem of toxic assets, Merrill announced an $8 billion write-down in 2007. Its mortgage-related losses would climb to more than $45 billion.

BofA participated in the federal government’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), initially receiving $25 billion and then another $20 billion in assistance to help it absorb Merrill, which reported a loss of more than $15 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008. It later came out that while Merrill was racking up losses it paid out $10 million or more to 11 top executives. It was also belatedly revealed that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had pressured BofA to conceal the extent of the financial mess at Merrill until after shareholders approved the acquisition. In the wake of that revelation, BofA shareholders stripped chief executive Kenneth Lewis of his additional post as chairman. Lewis later resigned from the CEO position as well.

In 2009 BofA agreed to pay $33 million to settle SEC charges that it misled investors about more than $5 billion in bonuses that were being paid to Merrill employees at the time of the firm’s acquisition. In 2010 the SEC announced a new $150 million settlement with BofA concerning the bank’s failure to disclose Merrill’s “extraordinary losses.” At the same time, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed civil fraud charges against Lewis personally, as well as BofA’s former chief financial officer Joseph Price for “duping shareholders and the federal government.”

In 2011 FINRA fined Merrill $3 million for misrepresenting loan delinquency data when selling residential subprime mortgage securities and later that year fined it $1 million for failing to properly supervise one of its registered representatives who was operating a Ponzi scheme.

In December 2011 BofA agreed to pay $315 million to settle a class-action suit alleging that Merrill had deceived investors when selling mortgage-backed securities.  June 2012 court filings in a shareholder lawsuit against BofA provided more documentation that bank executives knew in 2008 that the Merrill acquisition would depress BofA earnings for years to come but failed to provide that information to shareholders. In September 2012 BofA announced that it would pay $2.43 billion to settle the litigation.

The legal entanglements continue. Just last month, the Justice Department filed a civil suit charging BofA and Merrill of defrauding investors by making  misleading statements about the safety of $850 million in mortgage-backed securities sold in 2008. And in recent weeks BofA has had to agree to pay out about $200 million to settle cases involving past racial and gender discrimination by Merrill.

So what did the rescue of Merrill accomplish? It kept alive an investment operation that played a major role in the bringing about the near-collapse of the financial system and whose top people got paid handsomely as their recklessness threatened the survival of their own firm. And all this was taking place amid an atmosphere in which racial and sexual discrimination were apparently running rampant.

BofA may have thought it was building its empire when it gave in to pressure to rescue Merrill, but instead it took on vast new financial and legal liabilities. Perhaps the only good thing about the takeover was that it provided a deep-pocketed target for the lawsuits filed by the victims of Merrill’s abuses. Unfortunately, those lawsuits seem to have done little to change the ways of Merrill, BofA or any of the other big financial players. Perhaps a few more Lehmans would have done more to clean up the system.

Note: This post draws from my newly updated Corporate Rap Sheet on Bank of America, which can be found here.

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