Kenneth D. Lewis' job at Bank of America Corp. appears safe, but far from secure, as the company's board prepares to meet Wednesday.
Mr. Lewis, B of A's chairman, president, and chief executive since 2001, is expected to benefit from the same internal culture that facilitated several ill-timed acquisitions that crippled the Charlotte company last quarter and soured Wall Street perceptions of his leadership.
"This board doesn't like New York, and they don't care what the Street thinks," said Paul Miller Jr., an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. Inc., who expects Mr. Lewis to hang on to his job in the near term. "That doesn't mean his job is safe in six months, particularly if they have another huge loss looming."
Anthony Polini, an analyst at Raymond James Financial Inc., took a more optimistic view of Mr. Lewis' prospects, at least in part because B of A has few options. "I think he survives on Wednesday," Mr. Polini said. "If not, it will be bad for the stock and for the company. It doesn't make sense right now to point fingers and blame Ken Lewis, and there is no one I would rather have in there right now but him."
The public's perception of B of A and its top executive has eroded since the company reported a $2.39 billion fourth-quarter loss and a $15.3 billion loss at Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., forcing B of A to seek a second helping of capital from the Treasury Department. But analysts have long been wary of the company's appetite for acquisitions.
Analysts also criticized Mr. Lewis' sharp reversal on the status of John Thain, the former Merrill CEO, whom he defended Jan. 16 only to demand his resignation the next week. On Monday, Mr. Thain went public in an effort to defend his reputation. (See related story.)
The $1.95 trillion-asset B of A declined to comment Monday.
Andrew Marquardt, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller, recalled the company's February 2007 analyst conference in Florida, where the key message from Mr. Lewis and other executives was finding "embedded opportunities" for growth absent big acquisitions. "There was skepticism from the Street about that organic focus," Mr. Marquardt said. Large purchases by Mr. Lewis "were inevitable … because he has long been viewed as someone who loves to do deals."
Since the conference, B of A has made numerous large deals, notably increasing exposure to commercial loans with LaSalle Bank in Chicago, residential mortgages with Countrywide Financial Corp., and capital markets with Merrill.
Analysts said that in many ways Mr. Lewis picked up the mantle from his predecessor, Hugh McColl Jr., who built NationsBank Corp. into a large coast-to-coast operation, capping his career with the 1998 acquisition of BankAmerica Corp. Those deals largely involved retail banking, a strong suit for B of A, and now Mr. Lewis is finding that there is more risk building scale in businesses such as investment banking.
"There is pride with being the biggest and the best," Mr. Miller said. "He had nowhere to go but acquisitions" to get there in many businesses. "My criticism is that he was betting shareholder money on a short and manageable recession. He had a really strong balance sheet … and had he not done all of those acquisitions, he would be the strongest guy on the block today."
Analysts said they believe Mr. Lewis makes acquisitions with offense in mind, rather than as a direct response to moves by competitors. Mr. Polini said he rejects the notion that the Merrill purchase was a countermove to JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s purchase of Bear, Stearns & Co. "I don't think Merrill was a knee-jerk reaction to the Bear deal," Mr. Polini said. Touching on the biggest and best theme, he said, "with Merrill they picked up a global market leader … and it seemed to be more driven by pride."
Mr. Marquardt noted another key theme from the Florida conference: an emphasis on expanding in capital markets by taking market share from others. Ten months later, during an earnings conference call, a disgusted Mr. Lewis famously complained that he had had "all the fun I can stand in investment banking" after the unit reported sizable losses.
According to Mr. Marquardt, the Merrill deal proved to be a second reversal in less than two years.
Even Mr. Polini, who still views himself as a proponent of Mr. Lewis, said the executive's reversals on investment banking remain hard to reconcile. "They decided last year to significantly downsize the capital markets business and focus away from investment banking" before hastily arranging the deal and overpaying for Merrill. "That's what bothers me more than everything else."