CNBC has learned that BlackRock Chairman and Chief Executive Laurence D. Fink met with Merrill Lynch co-president Gregory Fleming on Friday, in the midst of widespread speculation that current Merrill Chief Executive Stanley O'Neal will be gone from the firm this weekend.
News of the reported meeting came after O'Neal told associates that he's likely to be ousted as CEO in the coming days as the big brokerage firm's financial problems mount.
This week, Merrill announced a massive loss resulting from a write down of $8.4 billion of bad bonds and other securities held on its books. Merrill is likely to announce another writedown in the fourth quarter as well.
Word of O'Neal's looming ouster immediately boosted Merrill's shares after they fell following the earnings report.
It was O'Neal's strategy of increasing the firm's risk profile in the credit markets that led to big profits in recent years, but it is this same strategy that is behind the big losses that the firm is experiencing.
The huge writedown came after Merrill previously announced that it would write down $5 billion of losses; the massive increase caught investors and Merrill Lynch board members by surprise.
The final straw for O'Neal came after a report that he met with the CEO of Wachovia Bank for a possible merger that was seen as a desperation move by board members already angered by the huge writedowns, people close to the matter say.
Wachovia has a huge brokerage salesforce of its own, and the move was seen as a slap in the face to Merrill's own salesforce, the largest on Wall Street, which would have had to merge with a lesser known rival.
Three Emerge as Possible Successors
Among those considered to replace O'Neal are BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink, NYSE Euronext CEO John Thain and Merrill senior executive Robert McCann, according to people familiar with the situation.
A spokeswoman for BlackRock, an asset manager in which Merrill holds a large stake, declined to comment, saying the company does not comment on market speculation and rumors. NYSE spokesmen were not immediately available to comment.
Fink's candidacy has gathered steam because he is considered one of the top U.S. bond managers. He also is seen as someone who can remedy Merrill Lynch's fixed-income problems after the company wrote down $8.4 billion, mostly because of bad bets on subprime loans and collateralized debt obligations.
Thain has a blue-chip Wall Street resume, with credentials sharpened by running NYSE and his time as a former co-president at Goldman Sachs .
McCann oversees Merrill's more than 16,000 brokers and as president of its global private client service, runs a business that has been insulated from the credit-loss turmoil that weakened O'Neal's grip on the company.
Merrill shares are down 31 percent this year. At a company-wide meeting Wednesday, some Merrill employees told O'Neal that they were worried that the company's credit woes would hurt their pay and jeopardize their jobs.
Merrill employees, on average, are on track to be the worst paid on Wall Street this year, according to top investment banks' results for the first three quarters.
"A whole bunch of people are working hard to get him fired at the moment," said Dick Bove, an analyst at Punk Ziegel & Co. "I think that's clear. Whether they are going to be successful in that is really hard to say."