Bank of America Not Too Big to Manage, CFO Says

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Bank of America's (BAC) chief financial officer said Monday that the banking giant is still in the "early innings" of its cost-cutting initiatives but that it remains on track to reduce its annual overhead by $8 billion a year by mid-2015.

Speaking at the Barclays Global Financial Services Conference in New York, Bruce Thompson also sought to ease investors' fears that B of A is not setting aside enough funds to deal with problem mortgage loans and disputed the assertion that the nation's second-largest bank is too big to manage.

The company has been trying to get a handle on expenses by selling off noncore assets, shuttering some 500 branches and streamlining its workforce with a goal of reducing annual overhead on the consumer banking side by $5 billion by the end of next year. It is also taking steps to reduce expenses on the commercial banking side by $3 billion annually by the middle of 2015, Thompson said, adding that B of A has so far achieved roughly 20% of its cost-cutting objectives.

Asked if the company was focusing too much on cost reductions and not enough on revenue growth, Thompson noted that it has hired roughly 900 small-business bankers since late 2010 and added 226 financial advisers in the first half of the year.

He added that the company has combined its corporate and investment banking operations into a single unit to increase cross-selling opportunities with major corporate clients. With investment banking clients, the focus used to be on generating fees, "but the big push now is to capture as much of their deposits as we can," Thompson said. Similarly, the bank is identifying ways to sell investment banking services to corporate borrowers.

A big concern among investors and analysts in the audience was the bank's level of exposure to soured mortgages. Asked what would be the top reason for not investing in B of A stock, 52% cited the threat that it has under-reserved for problem loans it might have to buy back from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Thompson said that the company has already reached a number of settlements on repurchase claims, which he believes should give investors an idea on its "range of exposure." He acknowledged, however, that the company remains at odds with Fannie, which earlier this year stopped accepting loans from B of A because of what it said were "delays" by the lender in making good on outstanding buyback requests.

"We and Fannie are in a different place with respect to what we think we owe and what they think is owed to them," Thompson said Monday.

Thompson also bristled at the idea that B of A had become too big to manage, as one audience member suggested. He said that the company has shed $50 billion of noncore assets and that it will continue to focus on being only in business lines that "are core to our customers."

"Everything we are trying to do, both from an ease of doing business with us as well as an expense perspective, is to continue to simplify the company," he said.

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