Updated with analyst comment, latest share price. CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Brian Moynihan spent his first working day as CEO of Bank of America ( BAC) outlining goals and strategy with broad brush strokes -- repeating some cliches but also ushering in a new era for the country's largest bank. Moynihan officially took the reins from his predecessor Ken Lewis on New Year's Day, and spent Monday making the media rounds. He
published a column in Bank of America's hometown newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, provided prepared remarks to Dow Jones Newswires, and spoke with Bloomberg Television in Raleigh, N.C., before giving a speech at the North Carolina Bankers Association. Moynihan spoke of the financial crisis, the mistakes that led up to it, and the changes that have taken place since then. Essentially, his message was: We messed up, we took your money, we paid it back, and now we're working to make things better. The 50-year-old, blue-eyed Bostonian set the tone for what promises to be a challenging year for not just Bank of America, but the industry at large. After months of being catechized by lawmakers and facing pointed questions on cable television shows, Lewis had lost some of his luster. His demurrals became less kindly and he was less bashful about frustration with seemingly clueless politicians. During one puzzling exchange with Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), who demanded to know why he was paying himself mysterious "fees," Lewis said simply and exasperatedly: "I don't know what you're talking about." The ordinarily genteel, white-haired Southerner announced his retirement after a vacation in the mountains, sporting a scraggly beard, but probably feeling quite a bit of relief.
Yet the albatross that prompted Lewis' unexpected departure promises to stick around awhile longer. Bank of America -- along with Lewis and other executives -- face lawsuits and ongoing investigations into controversial decisions regarding the Merrill Lynch deal. On Monday, a federal judge who has not been friendly to the bank excluded some of its exculpatory evidence. Bank of America had been trying to use "widespread media reports" as proof that shareholders ought to have known information that executives did not expressly disclose to investors. Judge Jed Rakoff said Bank of America had played both sides -- first "expressly warn
ing its shareholders to disregard the media" and then using leaks to its benefit. "Even a zealous advocate might perceive that such an argument hints at hypocrisy," the judge said, according to media reports. Perhaps more important are calls by lawmakers and some public advocates to dismantle the very business model that the Merrill deal represents. Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) are sponsoring a bill to resurrect the wall between commercial and investment banking -- something that would hurt Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Wells Fargo ( WFC), Citigroup ( C) and any other large bank that relies on capital markets business to diversify its revenue stream. It's unclear that the proposal has enough support to move beyond a debate, especially since foreign competitors don't have such restrictions. However, there will soon be new laws that will make the day-to-day business of banking more difficult and costly. The Obama administration has promised a regulatory overhaul that will limit interest-rate hikes and fees, require higher capital levels, restrict leverage and more closely monitor market activity to prevent another financial catastrophe.
On Monday, Moynihan expressed opposition to any measure that would break up banks considered too big to fail, saying size and scale "represent what our customers need from us as an industry." However, he also took pains to acknowledge bankers' past sins and assert a new focus on customer happiness that had gotten pushed to the wayside during the many years of $35 overdraft fees. "Customers want clarity, consistency and simplicity from their bank," Moynihan said in his editorial column, asserting that Bank of America will "give people what they want." Besides putting customers first, Moynihan outlined three other vague strategies to achieve a middle ground between lackluster stability and booming growth: Lend responsibly, help homeowners and keep capital and leverage at levels that ensure another bailout isn't necessary. Whether he was paying mandatory lip service to angry taxpayers, disgruntled customers and dissatisfied shareholders or being genuine depends on the listener. Rochdale Securities analyst Richard Bove said in a note Tuesday that Moynihan has not, in fact, recognized how much the world has changed, and should "not be making speeches and giving interviews" until he has developed a comprehensive business strategy. "In his comments yesterday, Mr. Moynihan expressed a 'steady as she goes' philosophy," Bove says. "...The problem is that this strategy is no good." Although Bank of America can set industry standards by its size alone, few of the strategies Moynihan outlined are voluntary. They'll soon be required by law.
Yet Moynihan successfully introduced himself to all those constituencies as the bright, youthful face of a bank that serves one out of every two American households. He may oversee an era of positive change -- whether by choice or by force. His comments weren't meant to be revelatory or controversial. They were meant to show appreciation and contrition for an industry that survived and prospered on taxpayer largess, and now has to rely on those very taxpayers for fresh profits in an antagonistic environment. Executives have, with increasing frequency, had to apologize not for any specific personal mistake but that bad things happened in banking at all. "The worst is behind us in the sense of credit," Moynihan told Bloomberg Television. "As an industry, we over-lent and customers over-borrowed. If you could rewind the clock, you wouldn't do those things again." Shares of Bank of America were up 1.8% to $15.96 in midday action on Tuesday, following up a gain of more than 4% in Monday's session. -- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.