What BofA Gets By Passing on Lehman, Gobbling Up Merrill

We can certainly second-guess Bank of America (BAC) deciding to buy Merrill Lynch (MER) today rather than tomorrow or next week, when the price could have been meaningfully cheaper. There is speculation that the government pressed Merrill do to a deal now, so as to avoid another weekend bailout session later. Not only that, but by acting now BAC ensures they get Merrill, rather than having to pass up on a chance that may not come along ever again.

While the price they paid (and whether it proves justifiable based on long-term profitability at the Merrill unit) will be one of the key factors in the deal’s ultimate success, my job as a portfolio manager and a BAC shareholder is less about speculating on whether they could have paid less tomorrow and more about what they are getting for the deal they actually announced, a stock swap of 0.86 shares, valued at $29 per MER share based on Friday’s closing prices.

While the bad assets are abundant at Merrill’s investment banking arm, it is important to remember that the crown jewel of this deal is the Global Wealth Management division, not the investment bank. MER owns 50% of Blackrock (BLK) and has a network of nearly 17,000 financial advisors.

The BLK stake is publicly traded, so we know that is worth $14 billion. The Merrill Private Client Group does about $3 billion per year in pre-tax net income, so a conservative multiple on that division of 10x gets valued at another $30 billion. In sum, that comes to a $44 billion valuation for about 45% of MER’s revenue base, which excludes their entire investment banking operation.

Bank of America shares are trading around $29 each this morning, which values the Merrill deal at ~$43 billion. As a result, BAC shareholders are getting MER’s investment bank for free. There is a price to pay for that luxury, however, because further writedowns of Merrill’s bad assets will now be incurred by BAC. Long term though, it is hard to argue that BAC can’t make this deal successful over a multi-year time frame. Jut how bad future writedowns are will play a big role in determining such success.

Even Oppenheimer’s Meredith Whitney, the extremely bearish analyst on the banks, today pegged Merrill Lynch fair value at between $27 and $35 per share. At today’s prices, BAC is paying less than what Wall Street’s most bearish analyst thinks the company is worth. That can’t be a bad thing…

All in all, this deal is much like the Countrywide one. BAC is accepting near-term problems for the possibility of tremendous long term upside. I would much prefer that strategy to the one a company like Wachovia (WB) implemented when they bought a mortgage company (Golden West) and an investment firm (AG Edwards) at the top of the market. At least BAC did so when the firms were in distress, and might have gotten a bargain as a result. Time will tell.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of BAC at the time of writing