Selling a pig in a poke

For starters, “a pig in a poke” is an ancient expression referring to a scam in the Middle Ages. The trickster would go to the market with a bag tied at the top – inside was an active, wriggling animal that the seller promoted as a small pig. The hapless farmer who bought this bag would later discover what it contained – not a valuable pig to provide future meat, but a cat, comparatively worthless in a world with too many cats already. You could buy a pig in a poke, or sell one. Later, someone inevitably would let the cat out of the bag and the truth would be known.

And so we come to Bank of America‘s merger with Merrill Lynch, announced at the worst point of the financial crisis in September 2008 and closed on Jan. 1, 2009. The deal is back in the news today, and the conflict is over what BofA disclosed about what was inside that bag back in the fourth quarter of 2008.

A federal judge in New York today said he would approve a settlement between BofA and the SEC over lack of adequate disclosure in the bank’s merger with Merrill – but the judge called the consent order “half-baked justice at best.”

The slap was directed mostly at the SEC for not punishing BofA more harshly, but US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff also had a few choice comments on the company’s disclosure around the deal. I gather from news reports that Rakoff can be a little cranky – but in reacting angrily against “too big to fail” banks and the government that bailed them out, he is echoing the feelings of Main Street America.

As an investor relations counselor rather than a lawyer, I find the lessons on disclosure – and IR decision making when “selling” a deal – more interesting than the fine legal points of who’s right or wrong between the SEC and BofA.

In his opinion today, Judge Rakoff said the bank failed to make adequate disclosures following the September 2008 merger announcement, running through the proxy statement leading up to Dec. 5, 2008, approval by BofA shareholders, and right on through the Jan. 1, 2009, closing.

Rakoff cited two basic decisions not to disclose:

  • The choice not to disclose in the proxy statement on the merger than BofA was allowing Merrill to pay $5.8 billion in bonuses to execs and top employees “at a time when Merrill was suffering huge losses.”
  • The failure to tell shareholders, before either the vote or the closing, about “the Bank’s ever-increasing knowledge that Merrill was suffering historically great losses during the fourth quarter of 2008 (ultimately amounting to a net loss of $15.3 billion, the largest quarterly loss in the firm’s history).”

By not disclosing these flaws, some folks – obviously including the judge – think BofA sold its own shareholders a pig in a poke. Judge Rakoff’s take on it:

Despite the Bank’s somewhat coy refusal to concede the materiality of these nondisclosures, it seems obvious that a prudent Bank shareholder, if informed of the aforementioned facts, would have thought twice about approving the merger or might have sought its renegotiation.

What is far from obvious, however, is why these nondisclosures occurred. The S.E.C. and the Bank have consistently taken the position that it was, at worst, the product of negligence on the part of the Bank, its relevant executives, and its lawyers (inside and outside), who made the decisions (such as they were) to non-disclose on a piecemeal basis in which inadequate data coupled with rather narrow parsing of the disclosure issues combined to obscure the combined impact of the information being withheld.

The consent order includes several “remedial actions” – including requirements that BofA get SEC approval for its choice of independent auditors, disclosure lawyers and compensation consultants for the next three years. Judge Rakoff describes these as mild corrections for a BofA attitude in need of adjustment:

Given that the apparent working assumption of the Bank’s decision-makers and lawyers involved in the underlying events at issue here was not to disclose information if a rationale could be found for not doing so, the proposed remedial steps should help foster a healthier attitude of “when in doubt, disclose.”

On the money side of today’s ruling, Rakoff wrote that the $150 million BofA will pay the SEC is “paltry” but added the settlement is better than a “vacuous” proposal of $33 million he rejected last August. The judge reluctantly approved the 150 mil.

“While better than nothing, this is half-baked justice at best,” the judge wrote. In the spirit of giving partial compensation to the “victims,” Rakoff ordered that the $150 million be distributed to “legacy” shareholders of BofA, not officers and directors and not former Merrill shareholders who got BofA shares.

While not judging what took place behind closed doors leading up to the BofA-Merrill merger, I do think IR people can take two lessons to heart: Don’t sell a pig in a poke and, following Rakoff’s advice, When in doubt, disclose.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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