The WSJ has a devastating
op-ed editorial today on Hank Paulson and what now appears to be the forced acquisition by Bank of America of Merrill Lynch. It is a remarkable tale. Here's the beginning, you have to read the whole thing to believe it:
The cavalier use of brute government force has become routine, but the emerging story of how Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke forced CEO Ken Lewis to blow up Bank of America is still shocking. It's a case study in the ways that panicky regulators have so often botched the bailout and made the financial crisis worse.The most recent issue of Fortune magazine has a similar story of Paulson's abuse of power in effectuating the TARP:
In the name of containing "systemic risk," our regulators spread it. In order to keep Mr. Lewis quiet, they all but ordered him to deceive his own shareholders. And in the name of restoring financial confidence, they have so mistreated Bank of America that bank executives everywhere have concluded that neither Treasury nor the Federal Reserve can be trusted.
Mr. Lewis has told investigators for New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that in December Mr. Paulson threatened him not to cancel a deal to buy Merrill Lynch. BofA had discovered billions of dollars in undisclosed Merrill losses, and Mr. Lewis was considering invoking his rights under a material adverse condition clause to kill the merger. But Washington decided that America's financial system couldn't withstand a Merrill failure, and that BofA had to risk its own solvency to save it. So then-Treasury Secretary Paulson, who says he was acting at the direction of Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, told Mr. Lewis that the feds would fire him and his board if they didn't complete the deal.
Mr. Paulson told Mr. Lewis that the government would provide cash from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help BofA swallow Merrill. But since the government didn't want to reveal this new federal investment until after the merger closed, Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke rejected Mr. Lewis's request to get their commitment in writing.
"We do not want a disclosable event," Mr. Lewis says Mr. Paulson told him. "We do not want a public disclosure." Imagine what would happen to a CEO who said that.
Then came the crisis of last autumn, beginning with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the government-arranged sales of Washington Mutual and Merrill Lynch. On the last weekend of September the FDIC conducted a forced auction for Wachovia, with Citigroup and Wells Fargo as the two bidders. Citi won that round, agreeing to pay $2 billion for Wachovia's banking franchise, with the government guaranteeing a portion of the losses Citi would assume. Wells thought it could pay more, so after two days, with Kovacevich in Manhattan negotiating with regulators and Stumpf in San Francisco leading a team of 300 numbers crunchers, Wells offered to pay $15.4 billion for all of Wachovia - without any help from Washington. Or so they thought.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 13, Kovacevich was sitting at a long conference table with eight other bank chiefs in Washington, listening to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson tell them why they should take the government's money. Kovacevich says he protested, telling Paulson that compelling banks to accept TARP funds would lead to unintended consequences. It would erode confidence in the banking sector by making investors question the healthiest banks rather than instilling confidence in the neediest. Other industries undoubtedly would come to expect a bailout themselves. Still, Kovacevich took the money.
His displeasure leaked to the public, but what hasn't been reported is exactly how Paulson flipped the seasoned banker so quickly. In what an observer in the room describes as a "true Godfather moment," Paulson told all the assembled bankers, "Your regulator is sitting right there" - actually the industry's two biggest overlords were in attendance: John Dugan, comptroller of the currency, and FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair - "and you're going to get a call tomorrow telling you you're undercapitalized and that you won't be able to raise money in the private markets."
For Kovacevich this broadside was the horse's head on his pillow. He and his bank were in an unfamiliar position of vulnerability. Wells had just agreed to buy Wachovia, a bank it had coveted for years, and it needed the government's approval - and, critically, the ability to raise money - to complete the deal. Reflecting on the episode with righteous indignation, Kovacevich points out that each of his warnings to Paulson was later validated. Yet he turns sheepish in explaining his decision. "You want to do what your country and your regulators want," he says quietly in his office, decorated with miniature replicas of Wells Fargo's iconic stagecoaches. "There was no ambiguity," he says, as to what was expected of him.