That loud ticking you hear is Ken Lewis' tenure running out.
Bank of America Corp.'s shareholders won't miss the sound.
"Investors are used to getting quick fixes, and this is undoubtedly playing on their nerves," said Marshall Front, the chairman of the Chicago investment firm Front & Associates, of the elongated effort to replace Lewis as the bank's CEO.
The support of shareholders — tenuous under Lewis this year — is vital to B of A. Institutional investors, such as Front's firm, could be crucial allies for B of A if the government requires it to raise more capital before quitting the Troubled Asset Relief Program. "This much is clear," Front said. "The whole discussion on Tarp is put on hold without a CEO-designate in place."
B of A has said for months that it wants to start making installment payments on the $45 billion in Tarp funds it has received in the past year. For good reason: Participation in the program has been costly, including $2.5 billion in dividends this year. The company also had to pay the government $402 million in the third quarter to exit an unused asset guarantee tied to its Jan. 1 purchase of Merrill Lynch & Co.
Furthermore, as one of the biggest Tarp participants, the $2.39 trillion-asset Charlotte company has been subjected to considerable public relations hits. And concern has grown that the U.S. government could require bailed-out companies deemed "too big to fail" to pare back or divest certain businesses.
Investors will be looking for early hints from the successor to Lewis — who is scheduled to retire at yearend — whether he or she would favor such moves.
William Fitzpatrick, an analyst at Optique Capital Management in Racine, Wis., said he is among those who believe B of A will continue, having agreed to sell First Republic Bank and a division of Columbia Asset Management, to consider divestitures.
"The choice will go a long way toward indicating the future direction of the company," Fitzpatrick said. "I would expect someone heavy in commercial and retail banking and maybe light on capital markets. And they don't need a dealmaker."
Richard Wottrich, a managing director at Dresner Partners in Chicago, said B of A is at a disadvantage in talks with regulators until it has a CEO in place. Even then, the new CEO will have an outsized task in helping B of A pry itself out from under the government's thumb. "The process is going to be drip, drip, drip," he said, "and what credible CEO is going to step into a situation where they don't have any authority and they get a politically correct salary?"
The new CEO will have to reach out to big investors. Antsy shareholders may look to move money out of the company's stock and into shares of rivals who are either out of the Tarp or have clearer leadership structures, some said.
The succession drama could hurt the credibility of the recently reconstituted board. Reports published this week suggested that directors might be willing to offer the job to someone who prefers to live in New York, giving shareholders even more reason to question what is becoming a highly unorthodox process.
Irked institutional investors were largely responsible for stripping Lewis of his chairman's title in April.
In several instances, most recently the highly publicized rejection of the post by Bank of New York Mellon Corp. CEO Robert Kelly, B of A has appeared to be an undesirable career move. (Kelly went so far Thursday as to issue a memo to his company's operating committee ruling himself out.)
Institutional investors are also talking about other high-profile candidates who may have passed on the job, including U.S. Bancorp chairman and CEO Richard Davis, and Charles Scharf, the head of retail financial services at JPMorgan Chase & Co. Calls to U.S. Bancorp were not returned, and a JPMorgan Chase spokesman said he would not comment.
"Anxiety builds every time someone turns it down," said a managing director at one of Bank of America's largest institutional investors, who asked not to be named. "The embarrassment level is high for the board, and it goes up every time a 'no' response is publicized."