Threats And Secret Promises: Bank Of America's Merger With Merrill Lynch

Ken Lewis, Bank of America’s CEO, has testified under oath to threats by former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to remove the Bank’s Board of Directors and its management if the Bank didn't close its deal to acquire Merrill Lynch, and secret promises to support the Bank with federal funds if it did close the transaction. 

Those statements are contained in Lewis’ deposition, portions of which were released yesterday by New York's Attorney General. 

Lewis testified that the financial deterioration of Merrill in the fourth quarter of 2008 was "staggering,"  Dep. 13, and the acquisition  was turning out to be "a $15 billion hole" for the Bank. Dep. 60.  Lewis told Paulson that the Bank "was strongly considering" invoking the Material Adverse Change provision (the "MAC") in the Merger Agreement with Merrill.  Dep. 34, 58. The action of "calling a MAC" would have permitted Bank of America to terminate the Merrill transaction or at least to negotiate a better deal.  Paulson didn't like that idea, and asked Lewis to temporarily "stand down."  Dep. 42.

The Threat And The "Undisclosable" Promise Of Federal Funds

Lewis followed with a personal call to Paulson (who was out riding his bike at the time) and told Paulson, again, that the Bank was considering the invocation of the MAC.  According to Lewis' testimony, Paulson responded that the government "does not feel it's in your best interest for you to call a MAC" and that if the Bank did so or maybe even intended to do so, that the Treasury Department "would remove the board and management" of Bank of America.  Dep. 52. 

Paulson, testified Lewis, promised government support for the growing burden of the acquisition, but was unwilling to put that promise in writing.  He said to Lewis that a written commitment for federal funds "would be a disclosable event and we [the Treasury] do not want a disclosable event."  Dep. 80.

Lewis Reports To The BofA Board On The Threat And The Promise

Lewis reported to the Bank's board, shown in the minutes of the December 22, 2008 meeting, that if the Bank were "to invoke the material adverse change clause in the merger agreement with Merrill Lynch and fail to close the transaction, the Treasury and Fed would remove the Board and management of the" Bank.   He also reported on the verbal assurances provided by Paulson and also by Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.

In a bit of corporate minutekeeping that will undoubtedly become pivotal in the flood of shareholder suits already filed over this merger and those yet to come, the December 22 minutes say that "the Board concurred it would reach a decision that it deemed in the best interest of the Corporation and its shareholders without regard to this representation by the federal regulators."  In other words, the Board minutes says the Board wasn't influenced at all by Paulson's threat.  (How, well, fiduciary-like of them.)

Lewis Still Wants To "Call A MAC," But Reports To The Board On "Detailed" -- But Secret -- Assurances From Federal Regulators

Merrill's condition worsened over the eight days before the next Bank board meeting.  The minutes of that December 30th meeting show that Lewis reported he had told federal regulators "were it not for the serious concerns regarding the status of the United States financial services system and the adverse consequences of that situation to the Corporation articulated by the federal regulators, the Corporation would, in light of the deterioration of the operating results and capital position of Merrill Lynch, assert the material adverse change clause in its merger agreement with Merrill Lynch and would seek to renegotiate the transaction."

Lews reported at that meeting that he had "obtained detailed oral assurances from the federal regulators with regard to their commitment and has documented those assurances with e-mails and detailed notes of management's conversations with the federal regulators."  Those e-mails and notes haven’t yet been made publicly available, but they will certainly provide interesting reading when they are.

The Treasury Comes Through, Post-Closing, With Billions Of Dollars Of Funds

The Merrill transaction closed two days after the December 30th board meeting, on January 1, 2009.  The oral promises made by Paulson and the "federal regulators" weren't disclosed in connection with the transaction. 

But about two weeks after the closing, the Treasury showered Bank of America with an additional $20 billion in TARP funds and a $118 billion "backstop" on the assets acquired from Merrill.  That's more than enough to fill a "$15 million hole,"  as long as you aren't still digging. 

There's already a shareholder derivative action pending in the North Carolina Business Court over the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch merger, Cunniff v. Lewis.

The photo is from Rainforest Action Network's photostream.

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