Bank of America ( BAC) CEO Ken Lewis made an effort to differentiate his bank from failed competitors on Thursday, the third leader of a top bank to do so this week. Lewis acknowledged the economic turmoil, predicting that it was "far from over," as well as the plight of the banking industry. But he also took pains to thwart some of the negative attention banks have received by casting blame on other participants, including borrowers, investors, the lawmakers, regulators , media, appraisers and rating agencies. Lewis also touted Bank of America's financial strength, predicting the firm will pass a stress test given by the government, and go on to generate close to $50 billion in earnings before taxes and special charges this year on over $100 billion in revenue. "That kind of cash flow can solve a lot of problems, given time and an improving U.S. economy," Lewis said, according to prepared remarks. Lewis' statement had echoes of Citigroup ( C) CEO Vikram Pandit's memo on Tuesday saying that his troubled firm has been profitable in the first two months of the year, excluding writedowns and charges. Despite the fact that such writedowns and charges are what led to a massive government bailout of Citi, Pandit's statement fueled a major market rally early in the week. The BofA CEO also said that volatile stock movements which have sent his firm's market value down nearly 85% over the past year and depleted Citi to a penny-stock level last week, have been driven by fear rather than fundamentals. While those fears are "not irrational," Lewis said, the notion of nationalizing the country's largest and most complex banks is "misguided."
"I don't think the industry as a whole is in nearly as dire shape as some would have us believe," said Lewis. That message was similar to one put forth by JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon on Tuesday. Dimon said he was "optimistic" about the future of the industry and took pains to differentiate his firm from those that no longer exist. Among the ill-fated competitors are Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, which JPMorgan acquired last year; Countrywide and Merrill Lynch, which BofA acquired; Wachovia, which Wells Fargo ( WFC) purchased; and Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy further intensified the financial crisis last September. The government has spent or lent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out banks and other financial institutions like AIG ( AIG), Fannie Mae ( FNM) and Freddie Mac ( FRE) since the start of the crisis, and Lewis acknowledged taxpayer fury at the way some of those dollars have been used. BofA and its underling Merrill Lynch are locked in a heated battle with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over Merrill's distribution of $3.6 billion. Those payments were made just before BofA required another $20 billion to seal the deal on Jan. 1 and backstop Merrill's losses, which tallied up to $15 billion in 2008. While Lewis did not address that matter specifically, he said "I completely understand the outrage that people feel when they hear of banks that lost money paying out large bonuses to top executives." However, he noted that when such pay caps are spread out across an entire institution, it can hurt lower-level associates who are working hard to post profits for the firm.
In addition, he implied that anger about BofA's spending an estimated $10 million on marketing activities at the SuperBowl was understandable, but uninformed. He asserted that for every dollar spent on sports marketing activities, Bank of America receives $10 in revenue and $3 in earnings. "This is not wasted money," said Lewis. "It's money that drives business results."