If Merrill Lynch Chief Executive Stan O'Neal is forced out, there's little doubt who the firm's army of more than 16,000 brokers would like to see replace him: their own boss.
Robert McCann, president of Merrill Lynch's global private client business, has emerged as a potential candidate to replace the embattled O'Neal. Other candidates include BlackRock Chief Executive Larry Fink and NYSE Euronext CEO John Thain as possible replacements.
O'Neal's grip on Merrill has weakened after the company posted its biggest quarterly loss in its history. O'Neal admitted this week he and his team misjudged the company's exposure to subprime mortgages, triggering an $8.4 billion write-down in the third quarter.
McCann looked to have been sidelined just a few months ago after his direct reporting line to O'Neal was severed. But now he's making a comeback.
"If naming your CEO was a popularity contest, Stan would be out and McCann would be in. But we know it doesn't work that way," said a Merrill Lynch executive, who declined to be named.
It's unclear if McCann has enough recognition among Merrill Board members, a group put together during O'Neal's tenure.
But Tom Sowanick, chief investment officer of Clearbrook Financial in Princeton, N.J., said McCann has the experience and leadership skills to run Merrill. Sowanick, a former Merrill Lynch wealth management strategist, worked for McCann before leaving the company.
"Bob is a very demanding yet capable leader. He will be able to shepherd Merrill Lynch out of this storm," Sowanick said.
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.
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.
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.
Merrill's retail brokers have already lost confidence in O'Neal, thanks to the massive writedowns that happened on his watch. And some brokers are nervous that Merrill could be an attractive takeover target for a foreign bank. The company's depressed stock price and nearly $2 trillion in client assets might spur action from bidders.
Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Mayo said Merrill could fetch $100 to $120 a share in a takeover. That's a 90 percent premium over the company's current trading price.
A report in the New York Times Friday said O'Neal directed investment bank head Greg Fleming to approach Wachovia about a merger. Dick Bove, an analyst at Punk Ziegel & Co., said the overture "may indicate some panic on Mr. O'Neal's part."
Many investors share the brokers' feelings about O'Neal, who the Times said has also angered the board by authorizing the Wachovia talks without consulting with it.
Merrill Lynch declined comment for this story.
"We're clearly disappointed in Stan O'Neal..." one of Merrill's largest investors said on condition of anonymity.
CNBC learned on Friday that O'Neal had conceded to friends he could be out of a job by the end of the weekend.