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Will BofA rule more than its own world?

September 17, 2008|David Lazarus

I have seen the future, and it is Rollerball.

I don't mean the carnage-crazy sport played by James Caan in the 1975 movie. I mean the film's depiction of life in 2018, when "corporate wars" have left the world controlled not by governments but by business monopolies -- Energy, Transport, Food, Communications, Housing and Luxury.

Bank of America Corp.'s multibillion-dollar takeover of Merrill Lynch & Co. is the latest in a string of breathtaking acquisitions that has created a financial powerhouse so vast it seems well on its way to becoming a seventh heavyweight on the Rollerball global-domination list: Money.

Once the Merrill buyout is complete, BofA will rank as the country's largest retail bank, the largest credit card issuer, the largest mortgage provider and the largest retail brokerage. The bank has about 59 million consumer and small-business accounts, roughly $163 billion in credit card loans and more than 6,000 branches.

In the short run, that scope could be a boon to customers as smaller institutions follow Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. down the path to corporate road kill. If nothing else, BofA offers stability in a highly unstable world.

Longer term, does anyone think such a vast concentration of wealth and power in a single company is in the best interests of consumers?

"It can be very convenient having so much under one roof," said Jennifer Ellison, a principal at investment firm Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough in San Francisco, which was BofA's home until the bank and its name were taken over by NationsBank Corp. of North Carolina in 1998. "But if that roof ever collapses, where does that leave you?"

And are we getting to the point where BofA, like mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has become so big that the federal government couldn't let it fail, making taxpayers unwitting guarantors for the bank's global operations?

"We're already there," said Ruth Edwards, who was a BofA loan officer for 20 years and now works at Union Bank. "Employees have been saying that for years."

Edwards, 42, was one of more than a dozen BofA customers I chatted with the other day at Bank of America Plaza in downtown L.A.'s financial district, where I'd headed after the Merrill acquisition was announced.

Most people I met said BofA's growing heft is worrisome from a competitive-marketplace, taxpayer-getting-hosed standpoint. But as far as customers are concerned, things could be worse.

"Having Bank of America so large makes me more comfortable," said attorney Mark Richards, 43. "I'm glad my money's there and not in Washington Mutual."

Washington Mutual Inc., the country's biggest savings and loan and sixth-largest banking institution in terms of assets, has been getting hammered by shareholders amid fears that the company's pockets aren't deep enough to weather the credit crisis.

Maybe WaMu will get purchased -- JPMorgan Chase & Co. has been called a possible sugar daddy -- or maybe it will follow Lehman down the toilet.

Richards compared BofA's financial clout with Wal-Mart's supremacy over retailing.

"What I'm hoping is that Bank of America can bring the same bargaining power to the financial-services sector that Wal-Mart brings to the retail sector," he said.

By that, I'm guessing he meant lower prices for various products and services, not a soul-crushing customer experience and efforts to limit unions and employee benefits.

Pricilla Collier, 48, was less optimistic.

"It's a bad thing," she said. "There's no competition. They can rip us off on rates and fees, and where can you go if you're unhappy?"

Collier is also a former BofA loan officer who now works at Bank of the West. She said the water-cooler talk in banking circles these days centers on how consolidation will continue until there are only three or four major banks left.

BofA will be one of them, Collier said. So will Citibank. "We're just not sure who will be the other two," she said.

Since 2004, BofA has purchased FleetBoston Financial Corp. for $47 billion, credit card issuer MBNA Corp. for $35 billion, Chicago's LaSalle Bank for $21 billion and mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. for $4 billion. And now Merrill Lynch for a cool $44 billion (or maybe a bit less, depending on BofA's stock).

"We're good at this," BofA's chief exec, Ken Lewis, said Monday of making deals work in BofA's favor. "This isn't the first time we've done this."

I could almost hear those same words being uttered by Mr. Bartholomew, the enigmatic Energy chairman played by John Houseman in "Rollerball."

"Corporate society takes care of everything," he says in the film. "And all it asks of anyone, all it has ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions."

Mr. Bartholomew calls corporate control of the world an "inevitable destiny" following decades of industry consolidation.

Look at the telecom sector. Look at airlines. Look at banks.

Corporate society seems a little more inevitable every day.


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