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Bank of America CEO tries to calm investors

August 10, 2011: 3:21 PM ET

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan faced questions from investor Bruce Berkowitz -- it was a big gamble, and it seems he broke even on it.

Bruce Berkowitz Brian Moynihan

Bank of America's Brian Moynihan, left, and investor Bruce Berkowitz

FORTUNE -- Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan seems to understand one of the key lessons of the financial crisis: you have to be open with your shareholders. Now he just needs them to believe what he's saying.

Moynihan took to the airwaves today on a conference call organized by investor Bruce Berkowitz of the Fairholme Fund, one of Bank of America's largest shareholders. It comes after BofA's stock has crashed 33% in the last month and the bank announced a $9 billion quarterly loss in July—the biggest in its history. More than six thousand people tuned to hear Berkowitz ask the "toughest questions" submitted.

They centered on two points: how long will Bank of America (BAC) be consumed by its mortgage mess after acquiring Countrywide Financial in 2008, and will it be forced to raise capital in the meantime?

Moynihan told the audience the bank's $14 billion in mortgage provisions "ought to cover us." "Some people believe there's more there," he said, referencing the stock's plunge this week and AIG's planned $10 billion lawsuit against BofA to compensate for sourced mortgages. "We'll see them in court if that's what it takes," Moynihan said. That seemed to comfort investors a little after questions arose about BofA's recent soft approach to dealing with litigation. (For more, see Can Brian Moynihan fix America's biggest bank?)

Stock investors, no doubt parsing Moynihan's every word, pushed Bank of America's stock up 1% during the call.

Berkowitz pressed Moynihan on why investors should believe the company's estimates of $14 billion in provisions for bad mortgages when BofA was just sued by AIG (AIG) for $10 billion. Moynihan's response was basically, "trust us." Berkowitz also asked whether BofA's future earnings would prevent the need to raise more capital by selling additional shares. Moynihan said a capital raise wouldn't be necessary if the U.S. economy continues to grind ahead at a slow pace. If the next four years are dominated by recessions, he said, "that would be different."

Lately, investors have worried that lawsuits against BofA would also force the bank to raise capital. But analysts such as Dick Bove of Rochdale Securities say BofA's $126 billion in tangible common equity is more than enough to cover potential losses as long as the lawsuits aren't all decided tomorrow.

It's pretty unusual to see a CEO to join this kind of conference call. Analysts said Moynihan's appearance was a bid to allay the market's fears of the unknowns surrounding Bank of America: lawsuits against it that total tens of billions of dollars; questionable accounting in its loan book; and the possibility it will issue more stock to raise capital, hurting existing shareholders.

Cynics no doubt remember Alan Schwartz of Bear Stearns and Erin Callan of Lehman Brothers making public appearances to calm investors before their firms' demise. Moynihan's appearance today was more about Fairholme's good timing than anything. Berkowitz setup the call more than a month ago, before the market's latest swoon but still during a rough period for his 93 million shares in Bank of America. The stock is down almost 50% in 2011.

After the call it was unclear whether Moynihan accomplished anything much. Investors knew they weren't going to get ultimate loss estimates or a detailed capital plan. What they did get to see was a little more of the tenacity of Moynihan, a tough lawyer turned CEO. When asked when BofA planned to go on the offense to counter its critics, Moynihan said, "I'd say enough's enough already." That might have been just what investors were listening for.

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About This Author
Scott Cendrowski
Scott Cendrowski
Writer, Fortune

Scott Cendrowski is a writer at Fortune based in Beijing, where he covers business in China. He moved there in late 2013 from New York, where he wrote about Wall Street and investing. Before joining the magazine in 2008, he was a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic and an intern for Bloomberg News. A Detroit native, he has a B.A. in public policy from Michigan State University.

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