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ECONOMICS REPORT - Finance: Merrill Lynch CEO O'Neal Is Out After Huge Loss

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This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

Stan O'Neal
Stan O'Neal

This week, directors of investment bank Merrill Lynch forced out its chief executive officer, Stan O'Neal. He retired less than a week after Merrill reported its first quarterly loss in six years, and the biggest in its ninety-three-year history.

Merrill is the world's largest brokerage company. It lost over two billion dollars in the period from July through September. That was because of more than eight billion dollars in write-downs. A write-down represents a reduction in the value of investments or other assets.

The results were mostly related to subprime mortgages -- housing loans to people with risky credit histories. Merrill has had the largest losses so far of any American bank with investments tied to subprime loans. Many of these investments are complex securities called collateralized debt obligations.

Merrill had almost eight billion dollars in write-downs on C.D.O.s and subprime mortgages. That was even more than the four and one-half billion dollars expected. Its other divisions, however, remained profitable.

Stan O'Neal worked for Merrill Lynch for twenty-one years. He held the top job since two thousand two. Board members were angry at the losses and at reports that he proposed a merger deal with Wachovia Bank without their approval. He chose most of the members of that board.

Critics say he failed to listen to warnings about the risk of subprime debt. Yet his decisions to make riskier investments than chief executives before him helped produce record profits for the company. He also pushed to reduce costs, including thousands of job cuts -- a culture change for a company that was known as "Mother Merrill."

He leaves with about one hundred sixty million dollars worth of stock and retirement pay.

Stan O'Neal was the first African-American to lead a major Wall Street investment bank. He rose out of poverty. As a boy he picked cotton on a family farm in Alabama. Later he was a factory worker at General Motors.

Some market watchers think Merrill Lynch may have to write down an additional four billion dollars in the fourth quarter of the year. But the company was not alone in reporting big third-quarter losses.

In Europe the investment bank UBS said it lost about seven hundred million dollars. It wrote down more than three billion dollars of investments linked to subprime loans. And UBS warned that it could end the year with more losses.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report. I'm Mario Ritter.

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