Is BofA Merrill Lynch getting better, or worse?

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Are things finally looking up? The union between Bank of America and Merrill Lynch has been sealed with a new logo. And by some measures the combined organization isn't doing badly.

Not only has the company's share price more than tripled since its March low, but as of the first of June, data from Dealogic showed BofA Merrill ranked third globally in investment banking, with 7.3% of the global fee pool, behind only JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs.

Viswas Raghavan, head of international capital markets at JPMorgan, seems to rate the BofA/Merrill combination. Last week told a conference that surprisingly bad "teething problems," the combined Bank of America Merrill Lynch was likely to prove itself a very strong competitor.

That's the bullish perspective. The bearish perspective points to an organization in disarray and leaking its best people.

Firstly, despite ranking third on fees, BofA Merrill is losing ground: the combined companies had a 9.6% share in 2008, according to Dealogic.

Secondly, although it's said to be offering large multi-year guarantees to retain key staff, BofA Merrill Lynch continues to lose them, particularly from its advisory business. Former head of M&A Bill Rifkin has gone to JPMorgan. Veteran telecoms banker Woody Young has gone to Lazard. Mark Aedy, head of European investment banking, joined Moelis & Co in April.

Thirdly, reports of dissatisfaction continue to dribble out. CNBC reporter Dan Faber claims to have spoken to a Merrill banker who reportedly said -

"Everyone's leaving in droves. No one talks to each other here. You're going to have a bunch of B-players left...The BofA people are debt market mechanics, they don't have an institutional memory. All our key guys are leaving."

With Goldman Sachs reportedly preparing to pay its biggest bonuses ever in 2009, and prospects for M&A and ECM said to be improving, BofA Merrill needs to act quickly to stabilize its investment banking businesses outside DCM.

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