- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Shareholders of Merrill Lynch & Co. and Bank of America Corp. on Friday approved the investment bank’s sale to Bank of America, a move that will create the nation’s largest financial services firm.

During a special shareholders meeting at company headquarters in New York, Merrill shareholders approved the sale of the company, bringing to an end the independence of an investment bank founded in 1914.

Bank of America shareholders approved the deal later in the day. Bank of America’s stock has fallen 63 percent this year as the credit crisis wears on.

Only a handful of shareholders spoke at Merrill’s 45-minute meeting in New York’s Financial District, with most saying the deal was disappointing, though necessary amid the market turmoil. Many blamed former Chief Executive Officer Stan O’Neal and the board of directors for putting Merrill in the position of needing to sell to avoid failure. Mr. O’Neal and the board did not, the critics said, provide the oversight required to protect the bank.

Among those who spoke was Win Smith Jr., a former chairman of Merrill Lynch International. His father was among Merrill’s founders.

During his impassioned speech, Mr. Smith singled out the “failed leadership” of Mr. O’Neal and the board for Merrill’s troubles, sayng they sacrificed the company’s foundation and long-term growth for short-term gains amid the economic and housing booms earlier this decade.

Merrill has posted five consecutive quarterly losses as it has been forced to cut the value of holdings in a wide variety of investments such as mortgage-backed securities. Mr. O’Neal presided over Merrill as it ramped up its investments in such products.

Mr. O’Neal was ousted in late 2007 and replaced by John Thain, who orchestrated the bank’s sale in September as the credit crisis mushroomed, leading to the bankruptcy filing of competitor Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The deal also prevented the company from being sold at a fire-sale price, as Bear Stearns Cos. was in March.

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