Why Bank of America Won’t Acquire Countrywide

The New York Times reports today that Bank of America is still firmly committed to acquiring crippled mortgage giant Countrywide Financial. 

After reading the article, we’re convinced that the deal isn’t going to happen.

According to the Times, Bank of America’s chief executive Kenneth D. Lewis “confirmed his commitment to the Countrywide buyout, which is expected to close by the end of September. When asked about the fact that home prices have plummeted and loan defaults have soared since the deal was announced, Mr. Lewis defended it as ‘compelling’, with a ‘pretty nice’ upside. ‘We don’t have our heads in the sand,’ he said.”

But the facts are that Countrywide has lost $2.5 billion in just the last three quarters. As the Times noted, in the first quarter of 2008, Countrywide’s total nonperforming assets hit $6 billion, almost five times that of the same period last year.

Countrywide has more than $95 billion in loans held for investments on its books, many of them adjustable-rate mortgages written on properties in California and Florida, where prices are still falling. Moreover, $34 billion of these loans are home equity lines of credit and second liens, which are riskier because they are more likely to generate losses when home values fall.

In addition, the Times said, “Countrywide has $15.6 billion in mortgages and related securities that it hopes to sell. Of these, $10.4 billion are so-called Level 2, and hard to value because the market for them is inactive. An additional $5.1 billion are valued on internal company models, not market prices.”

The Times quoted several analysts who think that the Countrywide deal is a bad move.

Paul J. Miller, managing director at the securities firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, which has published a report analysing the acquisition, called the purchase of Countrywide by Bank of America “a horrible deal.” 

Miller estimates that the deal will cost Bank of America an additional $10 billion to $15 billion above the $4 billion purchase price when a final accounting of losses is made.  Miller also said that Bank of America could face write-downs of up to $30 billion if goes ahead with buying Countrywide.

Instead, Miller think that Bank of America should  “completely walk away” from the deal.

Bloomberg News also points out the potential disaster awaiting Bank of America if it goes ahead with the Countrywide deal. 

Bloomberg observes that Bank of America stock has dropped 17 points since the deal was announced, and quotes Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics as saying that “If Ken Lewis pulls the trigger on Countrywide, he’s going to lose his job. It’s so early in the cycle of this housing downturn, you almost know that they are going to go wrong.”

Further, as the subprime mortgage industry collapsed and took much of the national economy with it, Countrywide and its executives have been hit with a barrage of criticism, investigations, and lawsuits, and could even face criminal charges. 

Even with its decision last week to jettison Countrywide COO David Sambol (who it had onced pledged to keep on board), Bank of America is likely to come under sharp criticism for its association with the Countrywide, which has become the poster-child for the greed, mismanagement, false advertising and outright fraud that led to the subprime meltdown.

As law professor Carl Tobias is quoted as saying, “there ought to be concern on Bank of America’s part as to reputation and what these bankruptcy trustees and judges are saying.”

There are some signs that the deal is falling apart even as the Federal Reserve gave the deal its blessing. Last month, Bank of America  said in a filing that it’s not promising to guarantee the debt of Countrywide.

Our guess is that the Times article is, in fact, part of an exit strategy by Bank of America, and that it will soon find a compelling reason to back out of the deal.

 UPDATE:

We were wrong here — Bank of America purchased Countrywide on July 1. 

According to Bank of America CEO Kenneth D. Lewis, “This purchase significantly increases Bank of America’s market share in consumer real estate, and as our companies combine, we believe Bank of America will benefit from excellent systems and a broad distribution network that will offer more ways to meet our customers’ credit needs.”

In a press release, Bank of America vowed to make changes in the way Countrywide operates its mortgage business and stressed a new approach meant to change the company’s image:

“Bank of America will pursue a new goal to lend and invest $1.5 trillion for community development over the next 10 years beginning in 2009. The goal will focus on affordable housing, economic development and consumer and small business lending and replace existing community development goals of both companies. Bank of America also previously announced a $35 million neighborhood preservation and foreclosure prevention package by both companies focusing on grants and low-cost loans to help local and national nonprofit organizations engaged in foreclosure prevention, and to purchase vacant single-family homes for neighborhood preservation. The combined company will modify or workout about $40 billion in troubled mortgage loans in the next two years and these efforts will keep an estimated 265,000 customers in their homes. The combined loss mitigation staffs will be maintained at the level of more than 3,900 for at least one year.”

But most analysts — and some major Bank of America shareholders — are still wondering what Lewis could be thinking in taking on Countrywide’s horrendous public image, its debt, and its expanding liability in numerous lawsuits.

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