Wednesday, May 6, 2009

U.S. Says BofA Needs $33.9 Billion Cushion

When will this end?
The government has told Bank of America it needs $33.9 billion in capital to withstand any worsening of the economic downturn, The New York Times’s Louise Story and Eric Dash reported, citing an executive at the bank.

If the bank is unable to raise the capital cushion by selling assets or stock, it would have to rely on the government, which has provided $45 billion in capital through the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

It could satisfy regulators’ demands simply by converting non-voting preferred shares it gave the government in return for the capital, into common stock.

But that would make the government one of the bank’s largest shareholders.

Executives at the bank, one of the largest being examined, sparred with the government over the amount, which is higher than executives believed the bank needed.

But J. Steele Alphin, the bank’s chief administrative officer, said Bank of America would have plenty of options to raise the capital on its own before it would have to convert any of the taxpayer money into common stock.

“We’re not happy about it because it’s still a big number,” Mr. Alphin told The Times. “We think it should be a bit less at the end of the day.”

The government’s determination that Bank of America doesn’t need as much capital as it has already received from taxpayers is an indication that even some of the most troubled banks may not need more government money than has been allocated to them.

The Treasury Department declined to comment on Tuesday evening, The Times said.

Citigroup, by contrast, has already decided to allow the government to convert some of its investment into common stock.

Under the arrangement worked out between the Treasury and Citigroup earlier this year, the Treasury will receive mandatory convertible preferred shares, meaning preferred shares that can be converted to voting shares of common stock at the will of the government.

If Bank of America relied on that conversion for the majority of the capital it needs to maintain, the government would become one of the bank’s largest shareholders.

Regulators have told the banks that the common shares would bolster their “tangible common equity,” a measure of capital that places greater emphasis on the resources that a bank has at its disposal than the more traditional measure of “Tier 1” capital.

Citigroup, the largest and most deeply troubled of the banks, is expected to need to raise capital as insurance against any further downturn in the economy.

The government told the bank it would need $50 billion to $55 billion in capital, a requirement that would force it to raise $5 billion to $10 billion in new capital, The Times said, citing people briefed on the final results.

Citigroup executives say the bank can easily cover any shortfall, and is considering several options to close that gap.

The Obama administration plans to publicize the results of stress tests on Thursday.

The results are expected to reveal that a number of them need additional capital, and many banks have negotiated with the government on what the actual capital requirements should be since they learned of the preliminary findings last week.

The tests are also expected to show that several banks, including Bank of New York Mellon, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, are healthy enough to repay TARP funds.

Mr. Alphin noted that the $34 billion figure is well below the $45 billion in capital that the government has already allocated to the bank, although he said the bank has plenty of options to raise the capital on its own.

“There are several ways to deal with this,” Mr. Alphin told The Times. “The company is very healthy.”

Bank executives estimate that the company will generate $30 billion a year in income, once a normal environment returns.

The company has faced criticism over its acquisition of Merrill Lynch, the troubled investment bank, and last week, shareholders voted to strip the bank’s chief executive, Kenneth D. Lewis, of his title as chairman of the board. The board said last week that it still unanimously supports Mr. Lewis in his role as chief executive.

Mr. Alphin said since the government figure is less than the $45 billion provided to Bank of America, the bank will now start looking at ways of repaying the $11 billion difference over time to the government.

In the case of Citigroup, which has also received two taxpayer lifelines, executives say the bank can easily cover any shortfall, and is considering several options to close that gap.

Among them are efforts to accelerate the sales of several businesses within Citi Holdings, a holding tank for assets it plans to shed, or to expand its common stock conversion plans to a broader base of private investors who hold Citigroup preferred stock. Both measures would avoid an increase in the government’s expected 36 percent ownership stake.

Taxpayer-supported Banks have been eager to wean themselves from the government’s purview, and many analysts have questioned how useful the stress tests will be in assessing their true health.

Also Tuesday, senior government officials told The Times that the Treasury Department is planning to require taxpayer-supported banks seeking to free themselves from the government’s grip to show that they can repay the lifelines without additional subsidies that have helped them survive the financial crisis.

Banks have had an indirect subsidy adopted by the government last fall that allows them to issue debt cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The Treasury is expected to announce as early as Wednesday that healthier banks must show that they can issue debt without the guarantees before they are allowed to exit the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

The banks also must demonstrate that they will be able to sell stock to private investors and pass a government stress test to show that they are healthy enough to survive without the taxpayer aid.

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