BofA could eventually cut 10 pct of branches

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Bank of America spokesman James Mahoney made the comments when asked about a published report that CEO Ken Lewis and another bank executive described such a plan to investors at a meeting last week in Charlotte, N.C., where the bank is based.

The move would be a pullback from the bank's two-decade expansion, most recently under Lewis' command, which expanded the bank from coast to coast.

"What took place was a discussion about the long-term direction of the company," Mahoney said. "Over the longer-term, as customer demands evolve, we see a fewer number of branches that provide more services."

The bank does not have a specific number of branches that will ultimately compose its franchise, Mahoney said, adding there's no immediate plan to close 10 percent of the bank's branches.

"In response to a question from an investor on the magnitude of branch closings, Lewis did acknowledge that the range could be potentially 10 percent," Mahoney said.

Shares of Bank of America rose 25 cents, or 1.9 percent, to close at $13.34 Tuesday.

Liam McGee, president of Bank of America's consumer and small-business bank, was also part of the meeting, Mahoney confirmed. The Wall Street Journal said in Tuesday's edition that McGee cited changing customer preferences for the move and noted more people are using online and mobile banking.

However, Richard Bove of Rochdale Research said the reason for the closures is both economic and regulatory.

"While the bank is likely to close the branches, the reason being given is simply farcical," Bove wrote in a research note Tuesday. "The branches will be closed because they are not economically viable."

The news comes as Bank of America continues to be under the careful watch of the U.S. government, while it works to integrate two recent deals.

Bank of America acquired troubled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. last summer and investment bank Merrill Lynch & Co. in January.

Those two acquisitions have proven challenging for Lewis, who was stripped of his chairman title by a shareholder vote at his company's annual meeting in April.

The bank and Lewis have been under intense scrutiny because Bank of America is one of the biggest recipients of government bailout money -- $45 billion -- and because the losses at Merrill Lynch turned out to be much higher than expected. It is not known when it will repay the government.

Last week, Bank of America announced a big second-quarter profit, but tempered the news by reporting it is still contending with losses from failed loans. During a call with analysts, Lewis said it would be "much tougher" to turn a profit for the rest of the year.

"Closing branches actually makes a lot of sense from a standpoint of trying to cut costs and have profitability," said Jason O'Donnell, a senior research analyst at Boenning & Scattergood Inc.

And because of the bank's numerous acquisitions over the years, "BofA does have the luxury of looking back and getting rid of overlap and overhead," O'Donnell said.

Bank of America has become a financial powerhouse befitting its name.

First under chief executive Hugh McColl Jr., and since 2001 under Lewis, the bank has grown through acquisition from a little North Carolina National Bank into a behemoth that holds more assets and deposits than any U.S. bank.

In 2004, the bank acquired FleetBoston Financial, a move that gave Bank of America $133 billion in deposits in eight Northeastern states. Three years ago it added millions of names to its customer ledger through the purchase of credit card issuer MBNA Corp.

In 2007, the bank completed its purchase of wealth management company U.S. Trust and acquired LaSalle Bank Corp., immediately turning Lewis' bank into the market leader in Chicago.

The acquisition of California-based Countrywide last year brought Bank of America to the forefront of the mortgage business, and the Merrill Lynch deal bought the bank a large presence back on Wall Street.

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