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Bank of America reaches deal to buy Merrill Lynch for $44B

Posted on 14 September 2008

In a rushed bid to ride out the storm sweeping American finance, 94-year-old Merrill Lynch & Co. agreed late Sunday to sell itself to Bank of America Corp. for roughly $44 billion.

The deal, which was being worked out in 48 hours of frenetic negotiating, could instantly reshape the U.S. banking landscape, making the nation’s prime behemoth even bigger. The boards of the two companies approved the deal Sunday evening, according to people familiar with the matter.

Driven by Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis, Bank of America has already made dozens of acquisitions large and small, including the purchase of ailing mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. earlier this year. In adding Merrill Lynch, it would control the nation’s largest force of stock brokers as well as a well-regarded investment bank.

A combination would create a bank of vast reach, involved in nearly every nook and cranny of the financial system, from credit cards and auto loans to bond and stock underwriting, merger advice and wealth management.

It would also show how the credit crisis has created opportunities for financially sound buyers. At $44 billion, or roughly $29 a share, Merrill would be sold at about two-thirds of its value of one year ago, and half its all-time peak value of early 2007. Merrill shares changed hands at $17.05 each on Friday, after falling sharply in the wake of Lehman’s looming demise.

“Why would Bank of America do this?” said analyst Nancy Bush at NAB Research LLC in Annandale, N.J. “Ken Lewis always likes to buy the biggest thing he can. So why not this? You are master of the universe, basically.”

Bank of America and Merrill Lynch wouldn’t comment on any discussions.

Merrill would give Bank of America strength around the world, including emerging markets such as India. And Merrill is also strong in underwriting, an area Bank of America identified last week at an investors’ conference where it would like to be more aggressive.