Is Stan Still the Man? Merrill Could Be Getting A New Chief

by Derek Loosvelt | October 26, 2007

Today, two days after investment banking giant Merrill Lynch revealed it would be writing down billions more in subprime losses than it had previously indicated, rumors flew about the possibility that Merrill CEO Stan O'Neal could be out of a job as early as Monday.

According to The New York Times, O'Neal had posed the idea of a merger with Charlotte-based bank Wachovia without first receiving approval from Merrill's board. The board, in turn, already not very pleased, to say the least, with the $8 billion in write-downs the firm announced on Wednesday, "was so upset with Mr. O’Neal that it even discussed the names of potential candidates to replace him," the Times reported.

Early rumors have placed three men at the top of the list for possible replacements: Larry Fink, BlackRock chairman and CEO; John Thain, former Goldman Sachs CEO and current chief of the NYSE; and Robert McCann, president of Merrill's global private client business.

Following Merrill's release of its write-downs and billions in third-quarter losses, the firm's stock plummeted 10 percent. But today, upon news of a possible merger with Wachovia, Merrill’s stock jumped 7 percent. Even so, at least a few financial papers, including The Wall Street Journal, indicated that a Wachovia bailout was highly unlikely, due to Wachovia recently having gone through two huge mergers and the fact that regulatory boards might not look favorably on the combination of the two largest brokerage forces on the Street—Merrill has 15,000 retail brokers and Wachovia has about 10,150. Some insiders said that Merrill will more likely go with the sort of bailout that Bear Stearns recently undertook— Bear partnered with Citic Securities, the largest investment bank in China.

Other firms announcing bad news as a result of the credit crunch included Bank of America and Countrywide Financial.  Charlotte-based BofA joined in the slashing parade spreading across Wall Street, announcing that it would be reducing headcount in its investment banking unit by 3,000. (This week The New York Times compiled a table of all the recent job cuts across Wall Street.) And Calabasas, Calif.-based Countrywide, the largest mortgage lender in the U.S., announced its first quarterly loss in 25 years, further revealing the hard times finance firms have been having as a result of the credit crunch.

In news unrelated to the crunch, this week boutique investment bank Greenhill & Co. founder Robert F. Greenhill said he would be stepping down as chief executive, handing over the CEO duties to two men, Scott Bok and Simon Borrows, Greenhill’s current co-presidents.  Greenhill, who began Morgan Stanley's M&A practice in 1972 and founded Greenhill and Co. in 1996, will be staying on as chairman.

Finally, in case you've grown a bit tired of reading about subprime losses but still want your financial fill, check out William D. Cohan's The Last Tycoons, which yesterday won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. Cohan is a New York-based journalist who worked for five years as an investment banker for prestigious advisory and investment management firm Lazard. According to Publisher's Weekly, Tycoons is "a competent history of Lazard, a well-written biography of [the firm's most famous and influential banker] Felix Rohatyn and an exciting insider's account of Wall Street infighting."

Filed Under: Finance


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