U.S. Lawmakers Smell Something Fishy in Bank of America / Merrill Deal

bo21U.S. lawmakers seek BofA-Merrill probe

R E U T E R S

Fri Apr 24, 2009
By Kim Dixon and Rachelle Younglai

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Momentum is building among U.S. lawmakers to investigate Bank of America’s (BAC.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) purchase of Merrill Lynch, amid allegations that federal officials gave the bank’s chief executive an ultimatum to complete the deal with the troubled investment house.

A senior Republican Senator joined House Democrats on Friday in seeking more details after New York’s attorney general said CEO Kenneth Lewis had testified he was pressured by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to do the merger, or lose his job.

“That was very disturbing,” Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Banking Committee, told the Reuters Global Financial Regulation Summit in Washington on Friday.

“I don’t know if there is securities fraud in there or what,” said Shelby, from Alabama.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House of Representatives expanded their probe by demanding all internal communications from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury Department touching on the deal.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday that Lewis testified that Paulson and Bernanke also pressured him to keep quiet about losses at the troubled Merrill Lynch, which rose to $12 billion from $9 billion in a matter of days.

This account has been disputed by representatives for Bernanke and Paulson but raises questions about whether federal officials encouraged Lewis to keep important information from investors.

Bank of America ultimately got additional federal bailout money to absorb Merrill.

Shelby said he wants the Senate Banking Committee to hold a hearing on the merger.

A spokeswoman for Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said he was deeply concerned about the allegations and had talked on Friday with Cuomo. “He will decide on next steps soon,” she said.

Representative Ed Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and domestic policy subcommittee chairman Dennis Kucinich, sent letters dated April 23 to the Fed and Treasury demanding the internal documents, with a request for responses by May 4.

“The implications of Mr. Lewis’ testimony, if accurate, are extremely serious,” said Towns and Kucinich.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has already said it is reviewing the disclosures surrounding the merger.

Publicly-traded companies are supposed to widely publicize so-called material information — information an investor needs to decide whether to buy or sell a stock.

“Bank of America and Ken Lewis are, in my mind, in deep trouble,” said James Cox, a securities professor at Duke Law School. “Both under state law and federal law disclosure standards there was clear duty to correct earlier statements regarding the viability and wisdom of the acquisition of Merrill Lynch.”

The potential liability of Paulson and Bernanke is a more murky area, according to former SEC chairman Harvey Pitt, who served under former President George W. Bush.

Securities law absolves government officials from liability in acts performed as part of official duties, he said.

“If Paulson and Bernanke coerced B of A to violate the securities laws out of concern for the economy, they can’t be liable and I think it would be hard to hold B of A liable,” Pitt said in an email.

“Nevertheless, you can’t violate the duties you owe shareholders merely because someone in the government asks you to do so,” said Pitt.

(For summit blog: blogs.reuters.com/summits/)

(Reporting by Kim Dixon and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

Canadian Banks Avoided Mortgage Meltdown

CBS News

Bankers Eschewed Subprime Loans, Mortgage Securities; The Result — No Bank Failures

1333019404_1e2c6382fb

Two more U.S. banks were taken over by the government overnight. And while a number of this country’s biggest banks reported improving conditions this week, some of their accounting methods have been questioned.

One place where none of this banking drama is taking place is Canada, as CBS Evening News weekend anchor Jeff Glor reports.

Ed Clark is a plainspoken, polite and prudent Canadian bank CEO with a few simple rules: “We should never do things for our customers and clients that we don’t actually understand. If you wouldn’t put your mother-in-law in this, don’t put our clients in it.”

You may never have heard of Clark or Toronto Dominion bank (aka TD Bank), but it’s the sixth-largest bank in North America – and, in the middle of a global banking crisis, a profitable one at that.

“We will make more money in this quarter than any bank in North America,” Clark said. “So for a little Canadian bank sitting up here, yeah that feels pretty good.”

How did that come to pass?

“Basically, because we didn’t do the things that blew other banks up,” Clark said.

And neither did TD Banks’s Canadian brethren. In the last quarter of 2008, all of Canada’s major banks were profitable, collectively making $2.5 billion during a period when U.S. banks lost more than $26 billion.

In fact, since the financial crisis began, American taxpayers have provided more than $300 billion dollars to more than 450 companies. During that same period, from their government, Canadian banks have not received one penny.

One reason: Take those infamous subprime mortgages given to risky homebuyers. They crippled banks in the U.S., where at peak, 25 percent of loans were subprime. In Canada? Three percent.

“Our U.S. subsidiaries did not do any subprime lending. Nothing. Zero,” Clark said. “We just said, ‘Stay away from this stuff. We know where this is going.'”

Another villain in the financial crisis were toxic mortgage-backed securities – risky loans that were chopped up and resold in countless different ways. Many banks gobbled up the now virtually worthless investments. Ed Clark got out 4 years ago saying they were just too complex.

Clark: “As soon as you see that complexity, you say, ‘How can I possibly think I actually can guess whether this will work or not?’ And as soon as I hear that, I say, ‘Get out of it.'”

Sherry Cooper spent years at the Fed overseeing Wall Street, before moving to Bay Street, the Canadian equivalent.

“It didn’t take long for me to discover that this is an entirely different culture,” said Cooper, chief economist at the Bank of Montreal. “Canadian banks were up to their ankles in the toxic muck whereas American banks were over there heads.”

“A lot of this is about saying, ‘Here are old banking rules, and we’re prepared to give up short term profit in order to make sure we have a balance sheet that doesn’t blow up on us,'” Clark said.

One reason why Canada is the only industrialized nation in the world without a single bank failure in the current economic downturn.