Merrill Shares Fall; To Quit Subprime Business

Merrill Lynch share fell sharply on Wednesday after the company said it will eliminate 650 jobs as it stops making subprime mortgages through its First Franklin Financial unit.

New York-based Merrill said it is quitting the subprime lending business because of the deteriorating market for home loans, which go to people with poor credit.

It said it will try to sell Home Loan Services, a unit of First Franklin that handles billing and collections. Merrill expects to incur $60 million of charges related to First Franklin, mainly for severance payments and closing offices, with about half the amount in the first quarter.

Merrill bought First Franklin and much of its loan portfolio from Cleveland-based National City for $1.3 billion in December 2006.

First Franklin's demise follows a $9.83 billion fourth-quarter loss at Merrill, the worst quarter in its 94-year history, reflecting about $16 billion of mortgage-related write-downs and adjustments.

Ex-Chief Executive Stanley O'Neal had hoped First Franklin would offer Merrill a stream of home loans it could package and sell as securities. But that plan backfired as U.S. housing prices fell, borrower defaults soared, and investors stopped buying many home loans they no longer considered safe.

O'Neal was ousted as Merrill's chief executive in October, and replaced by John Thain, the former chief of NYSE Euronext. Dozens of mortgage lenders have closed or slashed staffing in the last year because of the housing slump.

Three other large Wall Street banks -- Bear Stearns , Lehman Brothers Holdings and Morgan Stanley -- have also announced deep mortgage-related job cuts since last summer.

Bill Halldin, a Merrill spokesman, said most of the job cuts at San Jose, California-based First Franklin will take place this month. About 70 workers will remain, he said. First Franklin employed 2,100 people as recently as last May.

Merrill plans to solicit bids for Pittsburgh-based Home Loan Services in the coming weeks.

It also said mortgage lending in its wealth management unit, including prime mortgages offered through Merrill Lynch Credit, and international mortgage operations will not be affected.