Tuesday, February 2, 2010

June 29, 2010 – Trial date for SEC v. BofA, Part II

I have to admit that when news hit last month of the SEC's second amended complaint - and then second independent complaint - I was content at the time to read the headlines and news reporting alone. In addition to alleging BofA violated federal securities laws by not properly disclosing the Merrill bonus agreement to BofA shareholders prior to the proxy vote on the merger, the SEC filed new allegations that BofA violated securities laws by not properly disclosing Merrill 4Q08 losses to its shareholders prior to the same vote. The usual remedies are sought: injunction and civil penalty.

A short article ran last week in AmLaw, however, that brought me back to the SEC complaint itself. The gist: the agency's arguments are incompatible and not compellingly strung together. The critique argues that despite S.D.N.Y. Judge Rakoff insisting on accountability by individuals, the SEC continues to chase the corporation itself, and has failed to make any allegations against any BofA officers, directors, or legal counsel. The article ironically states that a corporation is nothing but a vehicle at the behest of individuals. Although the SEC did describe BofA's officers' and counsels' decisions in the complaint as "negligent" and "erroneous," the article points out that such is not unlawful. Further, the SEC's allegations in essence describe Wachtell Lipton as an incompetent advisor. A notion that is infrequently heard, and one that neither Wachtell or BofA has advanced as a matter of defense.

It was an interesting point, and so I went back into the complaints (the second independent complaint is virtually a cut/paste from the material in the second amended complaint). The timeline alleged is really interesting, and the SEC even paints the BofA officers and directors in a substantially more positive light than the media did over the course of 2009. (I am actually sitting here feeling a little bit bad for Ken Lewis.)

September 13th and 14th, 2008. The proverbial financial sky was falling, and BofA and Merrill were in discussion over a possible merger. It was unknown at this time the enormous 4Q08 losses Merrill would sustain (and in all Stef fairness, reasonably so).

September 15th. The parties announced successful negotiations had produced a merger agreement. The deal was valued at $50 billion. BofA would issue shares to Merrill shareholders, issuing 0.8595 BofA shares of common stock for every share of Merrill common stock. The exchange represented a $29 value for each Merrill share, which was a 70% premium from the trading price on Sept. 14th.

October 16th. Merrill issued a 10-Q and announced a net loss of $5.2 billion for 3Q08. The explanatory notes indicated a substantial write-down for selling CDOs backed by non-prime residential mortgages and the terminating related guarantees. The market responded positively to the news, anticipating a net income in 4Q08; the SEC alleges BofA management rode the same optimism wave in response to the news.

November 3rd. BofA and Merrill filed a joint proxy statement, principally for the purpose of soliciting shareholder votes to approve the merger. Separate shareholder meetings were planned for December 5th. BofA also filed a registration statement on Form S-4 to register the issuance of BofA shares to Merrill shareholders, per the merger agreement.

November 12th. Since the Sept. 15th merger announcement, BofA was kept abreast of Merrill's performance. On Nov. 12th Merrill gave BofA an internal forecast report estimating a 4Q08 net loss of $5.4 billion. BofA consulted with in-house and outside counsel as to whether the loss rose to the level of a public disclosure. Both counsel indicated a disclosure was not necessary, reasoning the proxy statement and recent filings describing the current economic environment and its potential impact on Merrill constituted sufficient disclosure. When BofA disclosed to Merrill that a public disclosure may be forthcoming, Merrill also agreed with in-house and outside counsel.

December 3rd. Merrill gave BofA an updated internal forecast report estimating a $6.4 billion net loss for October and November; the 4Q08 net loss was anticipated to be over $7 billion. BofA again consulted with counsel, and counsel again advised that a disclosure was not necessary, reasoning the loss was within the historical range of previous Merrill losses.

December 5th. Without new information, BofA shareholders believed no fundamental changes had occurred since the terms of the agreement were reached between Sept. 13th and 14th; the Merrill acquisition was approved by shareholder vote.

Second Week of December. Merrill gave BofA an updated internal forecast reporting net loss of over $12 billion for 4Q08. BofA considered forfeiting the acquisition altogether under merger agreement provisions of a material adverse change ("MAC").

January 1st, 2009. The merger closed.

January 6th. BofA publicly disclosed that Merrill was subject to a 4Q08 net loss of $15.3 billion. BofA also disclosed it received $20 billion in TARP funds to complete the acquisition.

The SEC alleges BofA failed to make proper disclosure of the 4Q08 Merrill losses in both the joint proxy statement and the Form S-4. The SEC argues the proxy should have contained updated details of the value of the Merrill merger so that shareholders would have been able to adequately consider the merger vote. The SEC argues the Form S-4 required BofA to publicly disclose any material changes to Merrill's affairs that were not otherwise reflected in other filings, and that the form also required BofA to update the shareholders prior to the proxy vote.

Image credit: Bank of America.

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