Merrill to Take $15 Billion Writedown

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Merrill and Citigroup were looking for more funding to compensate for pending writedowns. The Journal said Merrill was seeking $3-$4 billion, Ciit $10 billion, and the losses the firms could take on mortgage-related debt could be as high as $25 billion.

That number already appears to be out of date. The New York Times today reports that Merrill will announce $15 billion in writeoffs, which exceeds estimates as high as $12 billion among analysts.

Some time ago, we took note of an observation in the Bank of England’s Financial Stability Report (April 2007 issue) which identified 16 “large complex financial institutions” of which Merrill was one, and stated that they had become central to the functioning of the world financial system. Implication: if one or several become seriously impaired, the debt markets will have trouble functioning.

We appear to be seeing that play out now.

From the New York Times:

Merrill Lynch is expected to suffer $15 billion in losses stemming from soured mortgage investments, almost double its original estimate, prompting the firm to raise additional capital from an outside investor.

Merrill, the nation’s largest brokerage firm, is expected to disclose the huge write-down when it reports earnings next week, according to people who have been briefed on its plans. The loss far exceeds the $12 billion hit many Wall Street analysts had forecast.

To shore up its deteriorating finances, Merrill is now in discussions with investors in the United States, Asia and the Middle East, including American private equity firms, to raise about $4 billion in the coming days, these people said….

The latest moves at Merrill come as John A. Thain, who became the company’s chairman and chief executive in December, struggles to bolster the firm’s capital, burnish its reputation and avoid the toxic internal battles that have hurt the firm in the past.

Mr. Thain, who won plaudits as head of the New York Stock Exchange, has wasted little time. After he took over last month, Merrill Lynch promptly sold a $5.6 billion stake to Temasek Holdings, which is controlled by the government of Singapore, and Davis Selected Advisers, a money management firm based in Tucson.

During a meeting in December in London, Mr. Thain told anxious employees that Merrill expected further losses after an $8.4 billion write-down in the third quarter. He also said the firm would require additional capital. He said the fourth quarter would be a “very bad quarter,” those attending recalled.

Mr. Thain has made clear that Merrill would not sell its 49 percent stake in BlackRock, the global money management firm. But he has said that Merrill is considering selling noncore assets like its stake in Bloomberg, the financial news and information company founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. In a research report, Brad Hintz, a securities analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company, said that stake was worth about $4 billion…..

Merrill is hardly alone in seeking capital from overseas. United States financial institutions have raised more than $29 billion from foreign governments and their related investment entities, according to the market research firm Dealogic.

In recent months, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, Singapore’s lesser-known government fund, invested $9.7 billion in UBS; Citigroup sold a $7.5 billion stake to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority; and the China Investment Corporation poured $5 billion into Morgan Stanley.

If a foreign government takes another big stake in Merrill, Congress might ratchet up its scrutiny of sovereign wealth funds, which have ballooned thanks to rising oil prices and booming emerging markets.

On Thursday, SenatorCharles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, expressed concern about the amount of money American financial institutions are contemplating raising from sovereign wealth funds.

“Foreign investment, in general, strengthens our economy and creates jobs,” Senator Schumer said. “Because sovereign wealth funds, by definition, are potentially susceptible to noneconomic interests, the closer they come to exercising control and influence, the greater concerns we have.”

So far, none of the foreign investors that have bought into United States banks have sought management roles. “All have been very consciously structured to be passive,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell, who has worked on a number of these deals. “None have asked for directors.”

In addition to seeking funds from outside investors, which heavily dilutes the stakes of existing shareholders, Merrill Lynch has sought alternative ways to raise capital. In December, it agreed to sell most of its commercial finance business, Merrill Lynch Capital, to General Electric, raising about $1.3 billion in equity.

Mr. Hintz, the securities analyst, suggested another option would be to reduce the firm’s fixed-income business by a third, which would add about $3 billion in capital.

He estimates that Merrill will write down its $27 billion of combined collateralized debt obligation and subprime-related exposures by $10 billion and report a loss of $5.10 a share for the fourth quarter. Any write-down above $20 billion, he said, would “significantly increase leverage and would threaten the credit ratings of the firm.”

During the London meeting, Mr. Thain said that Merrill would have to build its presence in China as well as expand its principal investing businesses, including private equity, commercial real estate and infrastructure.

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  1. Lune

    I guess Wall St. is being nationalized. Except all the IBs will be doing the bidding of China, Singapore, and Abu Dabi et. al.

    It’s foolish to imagine that countries are plunking billions into floundering banks without wanting any influence in how they’re run. Perhaps right now, in order not to arouse the suspicion of Congress, they’re holding off, but I imagine that eventually, these banks will realize no one gives you $5-10bil for free.

    (Before I’m accused of being a nativist, I’m not necessarily against these investments. I’m just saying it’s naive to assume they won’t have any influence as a result)

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