The credit market crisis was on the verge of claiming its biggest casualty last night, as Stan O'Neal, the embattled chief executive of Merrill Lynch, prepared to resign his position after losing the support of boardroom colleagues.
In five years at the helm of one of Wall Street's largest firms, Mr O'Neal had worked to replace Merrill's paternalistic reputation with a strategy of risk taking and a push into exotic new trading areas. But he was brought down by spiralling losses on risky mortgage-backed assets, and the revelation of illicit talks to sell the company to a rival.
An emergency board meeting on Friday decided that he had to go, and it was reported yesterday that directors had spent the weekend discussing the terms of his departure, and the timetable for appointing a successor.
The company declined to comment on the rumours, which had pushed Merrill Lynch shares more than 8 per cent higheron Friday and kept them rising in after-hours trading.
The terms of a likely pay-off remained unclear, since many of the details are at the board's discretion. Members could withhold yet-to-vest share options worth about $76m (£37m), for example. Mr O'Neal was paid $48m last year, a 30 per cent pay rise thanks to a mortgage market that was then soaring and which had propelled Merrill to a record annual profit of $7.5bn.
Last week, the bank admitted it plunged into the red in the third quarter of 2007, having lost $7.9bn on mortgage-backed securities and structured credit products that rely for their value on the home loans of low-income Americans. These have collapsed in value as Americans began defaulting on their mortgages in record numbers.
A further write-down of loans for private equity deals pushed Merrill's total write-down to $8.4bn, several billion dollars more than it had warned Wall Street to expect. The confusion over its internal valuation procedures added to the perception that Mr O'Neal had taken the company into territory for which it was ill-equipped. That view was underlined by one of his predecessors yesterday. Daniel Tully, who was Merrill Lynch chairman for four years before stepping down a decade ago, told a Bloomberg reporter that third-quarter losses were "sickening".
"With the help of God, this too shall pass, and the firm will continue to do extraordinarily well, but without the excessive risk that apparently was taken," he said. "I've been in touch with many of our employees and ex-employees and everyone is sick about it, as I am too."
Mr O'Neal's resignation would rob Wall Street of its most powerful African-American businessman, a native of Alabama who earned an MBA at Harvard University. Recently, he angered board members with a secret approach to rival bank Wachovia about a merger deal after the summer's credit crisis hit Merrill's balance sheet.