BofA Mailbag: Readers React to Ken Lewis

Updated from 12:28 p.m. EST

Our story exploring whether investors should believe Bank of America ( BAC) CEO Ken Lewis' declaration of the company's strength elicited some strong reactions from readers.

Some questioned decisions that BofA has made or were angry at the company or Lewis. Others were confused about aspects of the article, or angry at for publishing it. We're giving them a platform to express these opinions, and for us to respond, through our reader mailbag.

The BofA Bulls

Dave A. wrote in to say he believes Bank of America is solid, with little exposure to risky mortgage assets because of government funding and a heap of revenue. He doesn't think the bad assets from the Countrywide or Merrill Lynch deals are significant enough to hurt BofA results in 2009 and believes that rampant criticism is "driving this market into the ground."

"Get a clue," writes Dave. " BofA will be profitable in 2009."

"Sincerely sickened" Brian B. struck a similar tone, saying that articles pointing out potential flaws or risks at major financial institutions "are what's driving this economy down." Instead, he says, reporters ought to "start focusing our articles on positive things and get this economy going."

Jim took issue with Roger Young's assertion at the end of the article that investors are safer waiting until bank stocks are on the rebound, rather than bottom fishing today, and perhaps losing the entire investment. While Young said that BofA would be a better buy at $5 -- when the market is more confident about its viability -- Jim wouldn't pay a premium for that faux assurance.

"Not too sure what your article is trying to articulate," he writes, adding sarcastically, "I really like the last quote where the stock may be a better buy at $5 than $3."

We asked, in the article, if BofA's deteriorated market value is reconcilable with Lewis' statements that the bank is healthy. John S. says yes, it is.

"The stock price reflects emotions, not financials," John asserts. "Just like Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK-A), it is still the same company with even better basics."

The BofA Bears

But Tommy K. points out that if BofA is as healthy as Lewis insists, why did the firm slash its dividend to a penny a quarter?

BofA is not alone in dividend cuts -- over 100 banks have done so over the past year to preserve capital, with US Bancorp ( USB) becoming the latest on Wednesday. Other big competitors like JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Citigroup ( C) and PNC Financial Group ( PNC) have made similar moves recently, with all eyes on Wells Fargo ( WFC) as the next to potentially cut payouts.

But, Tommy says BofA's 1% yield is "far less" than its peers. For comparison's sake, bank stocks in the KBW Bank Index pay out an average dividend near 5%.

"I can understand the fact that BofA's health is relatively fine if BofA slashed its dividend to 18 cents a year in consideration of its share price of less than $4, which is about 5% yield," writes Tommy. "The current dividend yield is only 1% -- far less than its peers. This shows BofA is not healthy at all from the eyes of investors."

Tom A. believes Bank of America's issue with the Merrill acquisition was not the bad assets it acquired, but the brokers and sales staff who have fled for competing firms amid a disordered transition. He says BofA made similar mistakes when acquiring the profitable wealth-management firm U.S. Trust, which services high-net-worth individuals.

"What no one seems to see is that they are going down the same path with Merrill that led to the total destruction of their acquisition of US Trust," he writes. He later adds that because sales staff, research analysts and clients left, "BofA got nothing for its money."

Jeffrey L., on the other hand, believes the problems with Bank of America are too much leverage, and too little due diligence. As far as he's concerned, BofA is "doomed."

"Ken Lewis is in denial," he writes. "Did you believe him when he said he knew everything about Merrill after having done only two days of due-diligence work prior to the acquisition? The bank is doomed to failure. Lewis wins the idiot acquisitions of the years for Countrywide and Merrill, yet his board supports him. As I said, the bank is doomed."

Moody's Investors Service on late Wednesday issued a word of caution, putting BofA and Wells Fargo on review for possible downgrade. The rating agency expressed concern about the bank's credit portfolio weighing on capital levels as the recession lingers.

BofA shares closed down 9.8% to $3.24 Thursday.

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