BofA Doubles Credit-Card Unit’s Writedown to $20.3 Billion

Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan
Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg

Bank of America Corp., the biggest U.S. lender by assets, almost doubled a goodwill impairment for its credit-card unit to $20.3 billion to reflect increased defaults and an almost two-year-old change in rules.

The bank restated federal regulatory filings to record the writedown to its FIA Card Services unit in 2009’s first half, the firm said yesterday in a statement. The non-cash charge, which replaced a $10.4 billion impairment booked last year, doesn’t affect “the financial results, safety and soundness or the capital position” of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based parent company, said Robert Stickler, a spokesman.

The writedown shows the credit-card unit’s prospects may have deteriorated more than initially disclosed after the U.S. passed legislation, known as the Card Act, in May 2009 to curb fees and interest-rate increases. In November, the bank said some measures would cut annual revenue by $1 billion, undermining efforts by Chief Executive Officer Brian T. Moynihan, 51, to improve returns for investors. The firm yesterday said the act and “deteriorating credit quality” caused the revision.

“This is another sign that the quality of the bank’s consumer-credit book is weaker than what they previously indicated,” said Tony Plath, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “It’s a huge number, and the way they’re disclosing it erodes the bank’s credibility. Why are we waiting until 2011 to do an impairment charge for two years ago?”

Closer Look

The restatement, covering the eight quarters of 2009 and 2010, was made in reports filed with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Bank of America said.

The company declined 64 cents, or 4.3 percent, to $14.11 at 3:30 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The stock is up 5.9 percent this year.

The lender had previously tested goodwill for entire business segments rather than subsidiaries, Stickler said. The company identified the charge to its credit-card unit last year after “we changed our processes and looked more closely at legal entities underlying the businesses,” he said.

Goodwill is an intangible asset on a firm’s balance sheet representing the premium paid over the market value of assets in an acquisition. Moynihan’s predecessor Kenneth D. Lewis spent $35 billion for MBNA Corp. in 2006, then the largest U.S. card issuer.

‘Crazy Price’

“They’re trying to reevaluate their businesses in light of changing regulations,” said Jonathan Finger, whose family-owned investment company, Finger Interests Ltd., owns 1.1 million Bank of America shares. “While it’s a non-cash charge, it does perhaps signal weaker profitability in the card business, and that concerns me.”

Bank of America said last month that the loss in its cards division, which includes credit and debit units, widened to $6.6 billion in 2010, from $5.3 billion in 2009, on the $10.4 billion writedown last year tied to debit-card regulation. Excluding the charge, the business would’ve posted profit of $3.8 billion as credit-card repayment rates improved, the company said.

Credit-card write-offs totaled 9.31 percent in December on an annualized basis, the bank said last month. That compares with the 8 percent annualized rate of the industry, Moody’s Investors Service said on Jan. 26.

Investors including Finger, who led a proxy fight that helped drive Lewis into retirement at the end of 2009, have said that the former CEO overpaid while seeking to expand Bank of America’s operations.

Lewis agreed to pay $29 a share for Merrill Lynch & Co. the weekend before Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in 2008. The $50 billion deal was a “crazy price,” billionaire investor Warren Buffett told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, according to remarks released this month.

Bank of America acquired Calabasas, California-based Countrywide Financial in 2008 in a stock swap originally valued at $4 billion. The company announced in January it would write down those operations by about $2 billion.

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