Earlier this year, when Merrill Lynch forked over $1.3 billion to buy subprime lender First Franklin Financial Corp., and some of its affiliates, a handful of executives were dancing in the hallways at National City in Cleveland. NatCity owned FFFC and, indeed, it would seem that they sold the subprime shop at the top of the market (and before the nonprime liquidity crisis reared its ugly head). But let's forget about FFFC for a moment. Does anyone see the irony of Merrill Lynch — known for selling stocks to America's wealthy — trying to make a buck by lending to credit impaired Americans? Let's not forget that Merrill was a major (and I do mean major) warehouse financier of non-banks plying their trade in subprime, including Ownit Mortgage, Mortgage Lenders Network and ResMAE, among others. What do all these lenders have in common? They all filed for bankruptcy protection. Some in the industry even speculated that Merrill was engaged in a plan to reduce the number of subprime lenders so that FFFC would have less competition, a thought that only a conspiracy theorist would hatch. One subprime executive who sold loans to Merrill told me that Merrill "was one of the most aggressive buyers of loans. They paid more than anyone and they did less due diligence." He blamed Merrill's woes on a top trader there, whose identity I'll get to in a future column as I continue to research the roots of this crisis. On Friday Merrill Lynch estimated that it will take $4.5 billion in credit-crunch-related writedowns (net of hedges) on subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and leveraged finance commitments.
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