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Bank of America CEO Search May Extend Into 2010

Bank of America is having such a hard time finding a new CEO that some analysts are wondering if Ken Lewis might have to stay past his planned Dec. 31 departure.

The nation's largest bank had said Lewis' replacement could be announced by Thanksgiving, but with no obvious right candidate emerging, analysts don't see that happening.

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Photo: Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com

And that may not be a surprise—this has been no ordinary CEO search. Like other struggling banks that have received federal bailout money, Bank of America is operating under government restrictions, among them having to get approval from federal pay czar Kenneth Feinberg for how much it can pay its new leader.

"The situation now is far more complex and far more challenging than it was a few months ago," said Anil Shivdasani, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Given the extent of the involvement of the U.S. government, the pay czar, a new board, it has been hard to find a capable CEO that would want to take this job."

Lewis' decision to retire, announced in September, capped a year of shareholder fury and regulatory scrutiny over the acquisition of Merrill Lynch, Lewis was stripped of his chairman post in April.

Shareholders who campaigned for Lewis' removal aren't happy with the search.

"The process has been a debacle and has exposed the fact that the board was completely unprepared to address Lewis' succession," said Michael Garland, director of value strategies for CtW Investment Group, which works with union-affiliated pension funds that hold about 33 million BofA shares, or about less than one half of 1 percent.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America is under pressure to choose a new CEO who can restore the company's relationship with regulators and members of Congress who have criticized Lewis and the bank since the Merrill Lynch deal closed in January.

The new CEO will have to contend with rising losses from failed loans that are expected to continue into 2010 as consumers struggle to keep up with their bills. In the third quarter, Bank of America lost more than $2.2 billion.

The new CEO will also have to come up with a plan to repay $45 billion in bailout funds.

Those challenges, "aren't easy tasks," said Alois Pirker, wealth management research director with Aite Group.

"Unless there's a solid long-term replacement in place, I do think (Lewis) should remain there," Pirker said. "There is no one who knows the day-to-day workings of the bank as well as he does."

The board may be reluctant to ask Lewis to remain as CEO into the new year, "but will agree if backed into a corner," said senior research analyst Jason O'Donnell of Boenning & Scattergood Inc.

It wasn't immediately clear if the bank's board, which meets on Fridays, is meeting this week due to Thanksgiving.

"The selection process is continuing, internal and external candidates are being considered and a decision will be made in the near future," BofA spokesman Scott Silvestri said.

The bank has said it is considering insiders including Chief Risk Officer Gregory Curl and Brian Moynihan, head of consumer banking. Moynihan is considered by analysts to be a top candidate, although House Oversight Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns said last week he may lack the needed leadership.

The selection of Moynihan or Curl is unlikely to pass regulatory muster and may anger larger shareholders, O'Donnell said.

"I still think an external candidate with big bank experience represents the best option," he said.

While Bank of America has not identified any outside candidates, media reports have said some snubbed the bank's advances, including Bank of New York Mellon Corp. CEO Bob Kelly.

"I don't think it really matters if they are from inside or outside of the bank," said Jamie Cox, managing partner of Harris Financial Group in Colonial Heights, Va. "I do think, however, that Ken Lewis needs to go."

Shivdasani, the finance professor, disagrees.

If the bank cannot find a permanent replacement, "the longer Lewis does stay on is better for shareholders and constituents," Shivdasani said.