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Has the Dying Bank of America Managed to Ensure Its Next Taxpayer Bailout?

Has the struggling financial giant found a way to commit financial suicide and leave taxpayers picking up the bill?

Bob Ivry, Hugh Son and Christine Harper have written an article that needs to be read by everyone interested in the financial crisis.  The article (available  here) is entitled:  BofA Said to Split Regulators Over Moving Merrill Derivatives to Bank Unit. The thrust of their story is that Bank of America’s holding company, BAC, has directed the transfer of a large number of troubled financial derivatives from its Merrill Lynch subsidiary to the federally insured bank Bank of America (BofA).  The story reports that the Federal Reserve supported the transfer and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) opposed it.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has  written an appropriately blistering attack on this outrageous action, which puts the public at substantially increased risk of loss.  

I write to add some context, point out additional areas of inappropriate actions, and add a regulatory perspective gained from dealing with analogous efforts by holding companies to foist dangerous affiliate transactions on insured depositories.  I’ll begin by adding some historical context to explain how B of A got into this maze of affiliate conflicts.

Ken Lewis’ “Scorched Earth” Campaign against B of A’s Shareholders

Acquiring Countrywide: the High Cost of CEO Adolescence

During this crisis, Ken Lewis went on a buying spree designed to allow him to brag that his was not simply bigger, but the biggest.  Bank of America’s holding company – BAC – became the acquirer of last resort.  Lewis began his war on BAC’s shareholders by ordering an artillery salvo on BAC’s own position.  What better way was there to destroy shareholder value than purchasing the most notorious lender in the world – Countrywide.  Countrywide was in the midst of a death spiral.  The FDIC would soon have been forced to pay an acquirer tens of billions of dollars to induce it to take on Countrywide’s nearly limitless contingent liabilities and toxic assets.  Even an FDIC-assisted acquisition would have been a grave mistake.  Acquiring thousands of Countrywide employees whose primary mission was to make fraudulent and toxic loans was an inelegant form of financial suicide.  It also revealed the negligible value Lewis placed on ethics and reputation.  

But Lewis did not wait to acquire Countrywide with FDIC assistance.  He feared that a rival would acquire it first and win the CEO bragging contest about who had the biggest, baddest bank.  His acquisition of Countrywide destroyed hundreds of billions of dollars of shareholder value and led to massive foreclosure fraud by what were now B of A employees. 

But there are two truly scary parts of the story of B of A’s acquisition of Countrywide that have received far too little attention.  B of A claims that it conducted extensive due diligence before acquiring Countrywide and discovered only minor problems.  If that claim is true, then B of A has been doomed for years regardless of whether it acquired Countrywide.  The proposed acquisition of Countrywide was huge and exceptionally controversial even within B of A.  Countrywide was notorious for its fraudulent loans.  There were numerous lawsuits and former employees explaining how these frauds worked. 

B of A is really “Nations Bank” (formerly named NCNB).  When Nations Bank acquired B of A (the San Francisco based bank), the North Carolina management took complete control.  The North Carolina management decided that “Bank of America” was the better brand name, so it adopted that name.  The key point to understand is that Nations/NCNB was created through a large series of aggressive mergers, so the bank had exceptional experience in conducting due diligence of targets for acquisition and it would have sent its top team to investigate Countrywide given its size and notoriety.  The acquisition of Countrywide did not have to be consummated exceptionally quickly.  Indeed, the deal had an “out” that allowed B of A to back out of the deal if conditions changed in an adverse manner (which they obviously did).  If B of A employees conducted extensive due diligence of Countrywide and could not discover its obvious, endemic frauds, abuses, and subverted systems then they are incompetent.  Indeed, that word is too bloodless a term to describe how worthless the due diligence team would have had to have been.  Given the many acquisitions the due diligence team vetted, B of A would have been doomed because it would have routinely been taken to the cleaners in those earlier deals.

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