We already knew, that, after it got wind of Merrill Lynch’s massive fourth-quarter losses back in December, Bank of America had thought about pulling out of its deal to buy the troubled investment bank — before being talked into it by the federal government.
But today, the Wall Street Journal adds some fascinating detail (sub. req.) about the level of hardball that the government played in making sure the deal went through.
Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chief Ben Bernanke reportedly warned B of A CEO Ken Lewis that if his firm pulled out, Merrill would collapse. They added that such a move, in the Journal’s words “could undercut confidence in Bank of America, both in the markets and among government officials.”
But that was just the start. Two days later, on a conference call, Bernanke told B of A that if it abandoned the Merrill deal, and came back to the Feds in the future seeking more bailout money, the government would consider removing the firm’s executives and directors.
The threats, of course, seem to have worked, since Bank of America went ahead with the deal — getting an additional $20 billion in bailout money to help digest Merrill.
Bernanke and Paulson may have been right to take such a hard line. But the episode suggests the level of control of day-to-day control that the government has had over the financial sector, since stepping in to rescue it last fall. Nationalizing the banks is still seen, in the mainstream debate as an extreme solution. But if the Feds are essentially making major operational decisions for the big banks, some would say they’ve been nationalized already — it’s just that no one wants to it.