Friday, June 8, 2012

Did Bank of America CEO Wrongly Mislead Voting Shareholders Concerning Purchase of Merrill Lynch?

The New York Times this Monday reported that Bank of America (BOA) executives, including its then chief executive, Kenneth D. Lewis, in 2008 concealed from shareholders about to vote whether to approve the bank's purchase of Merrill Lynch that the expected losses that the bank would absorb from the purchase were far greater than reflected in the proxy documents they had received relating to the purchase.  See here.  Further, according to the report, Mr. Lewis at the meeting at which the stockholders voted whether to accept the deal, in response to a question about whether the purchase would dilute or add to the bank's income in coming years, sidestepped the question and referred the questioners to the proxy statement, which he knew seriously understated the loss.  In court papers, the shareholders' lawyer called this response referencing the inaccurate proxy statement "materially false when made."

According to the Times, Mr. Lewis in recently-filed court papers claimed he had been advised by the bank's counsel, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, and by other bank executives that it was not necessary to disclose the actual projected losses.

The question of whether one must correct earlier inaccurate statements is sometimes murky, at least in law, and I would hesitate even to attempt to second-guess Wachtell Lipton, a highly-respected law firm, if in fact it did tell Mr. Lewis he need not correct the proxy statement before the vote.  I do, however, find it hard to believe that Wachtell Lipton would have advised him to give the shareholders an obfuscating, misleading and arguably false statement.

There may well be wholly legitimate and defensible reasons for Bank of America to withhold the revised loss statements or for Mr. Lewis to answer as he did.  The civil case, in which Mr. Lewis apparently has not asserted his privilege against self-incrimination, may provide these.

In the proxy statement, the projected loss of BOA profits from the merger was three percent in 2009, and nothing (and perhaps even a slight gain) in 2010.  In the estimate provided to the executives before the vote but not communicated to the shareholders, it was 13 percent in 2009 and 2.8 percent in 2010.  According to the Times, BOA's purchase of Merrill Lynch, which was ultimately urged by the government, required an additional $20 billion in bailout money beyond what the bank had received earlier.  In addition, when Merrill's fourth-quarter losses were disclosed along with the bailout, shareholders in four days lost half of their value in BOA stock -- roughly $50 billion.

I suspect that there will be some governmental interest in this matter, if there is not already.  I do not contend that Mr. Lewis' statement violated securities, criminal or other laws or regulations.  If regulations did not prohibit him from concealing the latest reports from the voting shareholders, however, they should have.  This may be another instance of questionable conduct that clear and specific regulations would have prevented.     

(goldman)

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