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Merrill Lynch ousts CEO O'Neal

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Merrill Lynch & Co Inc MER.N ousted Chairman and Chief Executive Stan O'Neal on Tuesday, just days after reporting the biggest quarterly loss in the company's history, making him the highest-ranking casualty in the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.

The world’s biggest brokerage said board member Alberto Cribiore, a veteran deal maker, will serve as interim nonexecutive chairman, while day-to-day operations will be overseen by Merrill’s current co-presidents, Ahmass Fakahany and Greg Fleming.

Cribiore, founder of private equity firm Brera Capital, will chair a search committee to find a permanent successor.

Fleming, a star investment banker, will oversee the company’s business segments. His duties also include oversight of risk management, a task previously associated with Fakahany, who the company said will lead global support, finance and human resource functions.

Merrill’s stock fell 3 percent to close at $65.56 on Tuesday and is down 30 percent this year.

Michael Holland, who oversees $4 billion of assets at Holland Co, said the market seemed to be saying Merrill’s troubles are not over.

Holland said he was surprised Fakahany remains in leadership. Before the announcement, sources told Reuters he was expected to resign and later added they still did not expect Fakahany to remain over the long term.

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“Fakahany, wasn’t he the guy who was responsible for this series of problems?” Holland said. “It’s at least quizzical that the person who remains in charge is in some ways directly responsible for the problems. ... O’Neal has lost his job because of these mistakes, and some people are asking how can the person in charge of risk management still be there.”

From March 2005 until being named co-president in May, Fakahany’s responsibilities included market risk management.

Merrill still faces challenges because of its exposure to $20.9 billion in subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations.

Some analysts estimate further write-downs of up to $5 billion, on top of the $8.4 billion write-down Merrill took in the third quarter.

Goldman Sachs analyst William Tanona said the assets in question have deteriorated meaningfully since the end of the third quarter. He estimated a $4.5 billion write-down.

Speculation that O’Neal would be ousted mounted after the company reported a $2.3 billion loss for the third quarter last week, mostly due to bad bets on securities tied to subprime loans. The loss was several times bigger than what O’Neal forecast earlier this month.

Merrill Lynch President and Chief Operating Officer Stan O'Neal announces an agreement with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to reform investment practices, in New York on May 21, 2002. Merrill Lynch & Co Inc said on Tuesday Chairman and Chief Executive Stan O'Neal retired and named board member Alberto Cribiore to serve as non-executive chairman, the company said. REUTERS/Chip East

“It’s no big surprise. Merrill Lynch had a huge misstep in risk management, and someone needed to pay the price,” said David Killian, portfolio manager of StoneRidge Investment Partners LLC. “The company totally lost its way in risk management.”

O’Neal admitted on a conference call last week that he misjudged the company’s exposure to risky subprime loans.

O'Neal, the first African-American to run a major Wall Street company, also hurt his cause when he floated a merger with U.S. bank Wachovia Corp WB.N without the board's knowledge, The New York Times reported last week.

O'Neal, 56, became CEO of Merrill Lynch in December 2002, and since then Merrill Lynch's shares have risen about 53 percent, compared with a 160 percent increase for the Amex Securities Broker-Dealer index .XBD.

The company said in its statement on Tuesday that O’Neal and the board had agreed that a change in leadership would best enable Merrill Lynch to move forward. The company described his departure as a retirement after 21 years of company service.

“The company has provided me with opportunities that I never imagined growing up,” O’Neal said in the statement.

Raised in segregated rural Alabama, O’Neal years later told an interviewer he was not born in his hometown’s hospital because it did not serve African-American families.

But he became one of Wall Street’s best-paid executives, taking home $48 million last year. He did not receive a severance package, but the company said the value of his retained stock awards and benefits was $161.5 million, accumulated since joining Merrill in 1986.

Merrill will provide O’Neal with an office and executive assistant for up to three years.

Bill Andrews, an analyst at money manager C.S. McKee, a Merrill shareholder, said O’Neal accomplished a lot at Merrill.

He pushed the company into new businesses and expanded Merrill’s presence overseas, Andrews said. Before the third-quarter meltdown, profit at Merrill had quintupled under O’Neal’s leadership.

“I don’t think his tenure was an abject failure,” Andrews said. “But Stan doesn’t like a lot of debate. People who don’t agree with him, no matter how talented they are, weren’t around long. That’s his Achilles’ heel.”

Additional reporting by Joseph Giannone, Dan Wilchins and Jonathan Stempel