By Alex Frew McMillan and Michael Flaherty
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Bank of America-Merrill Lynch <BAC.N>, the second-largest U.S. bank by assets, is cutting around a fifth of its managing directors across its Asia investment banking division, sources said on Monday, in a bid to cut costs as the outlook sours in a once-booming region.
Foreign banks in Asia stepped up their cost cutting in the latter part of last year and are now moving up the experience chain to prune positions and units seen as too expensive in the current environment.
Some 15 of BofA's 75 Asia managing directors in that unit will be gone by end-March through early retirement, transfer or the standard pink slip, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter. Among the departures is managing director Michael Cho, a veteran Merrill Lynch Asia M&A banker.
Headhunters interviewed by Reuters said the bank's reduction in its ranks of managing directors in Asia was a deeper-than-usual cull of senior bankers, but reflects the broad challenges the investment banking industry faces.
"That sounds like carnage," said Richard Broadhurst, who runs Hong Kong-based Initiative Recruitment.
Cho was the co-head of mergers and acquisitions in Asia ex-Japan, Australia and India and was appointed to the role in May 2009. His departure would represent one of the most senior Asia Pacific investment bankers to leave his post since the region wide cuts began in the fall.
Dow Jones first reported Cho's departure on Monday.
Cho could not immediately be reached for comment. Cho's co-head, Zhang Xiuping, will remain with BofA, the source said.
In a unique move, BofA is putting some of its analysts and associates - typically the youngest and newest members of a bank - into a general pool rather than assign them to a specific team, the sources said. This would allow the bank to set these younger bankers to any urgent and fee-producing work for any part of the business, rather than have them wait for their unit to see better demand.
Managing director is the top title attained at most investment banks, and in good years guarantees pay of $1-$3 million, including bonus. The title is earned for years of hard work or a shorter period of significant fee in-take.
But in leaner times or during a business restructuring or repositioning, MDs are targeted as the most expensive employees and the quickest way to reduce a significant cost. MDs who are not directly involved with client relationships that bring in revenue are usually the first to go.
BofA began its round of investment banking cuts in Asia on Monday, said the sources, who did not want to be identified as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The move is consistent with what BofA is doing globally as it aims to streamline the corporate and investment banking businesses and reduce costs wherever it can. The cost cutting initiative, known as "New BAC", targets the reduction of 30,000 jobs, the bank has previously disclosed.
Asia's rapid economic growth allowed the region to avoid some of the large lay-off rounds triggered in the United States and Europe by the financial crisis. The region now, though, has shown that it's no longer spared from such moves.
Large banks across the world have outlined plans to cut more than 125,000 jobs this year, according to a Reuters tally.
Deutsche Bank <DBKGn.DE> and Morgan Stanley <MS.N> fired analysts and brokers at their Australian operations on Monday as part of global job cuts, said two sources with direct knowledge of the cuts.
BofA kicked off its Asia cost cutting late last year, focusing on its Global Banking and Markets division, laying off bankers in the sales and trading, fixed income and commodities trading desks.
The latest round targets the investment banking business in the region, or mergers and acquisitions, equity and debt capital markets, said the sources.
Bank of America, which has around 6,000 employees across Asia, declined to comment.
BofA shares have slumped to around $6 each from more than $15 a year ago and almost $55 five years ago.
Separately, the bank has named Graham Seaton as head of its Asia Pacific prime brokerage, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters and confirmed by BofA spokesman Mark Tsang.
Seaton, who joined BofA in 1999, will be based in Hong Kong and report to Brian Canniffe, head of Asia Pacific Financing and Futures, and Soofian Zuberi, head of Asia Pacific Global Markets Sales & Structuring.
(Additional reporting by Saeed Azhar in SINGAPORE, Nishant Kumar and Denny Thomas in HONG KONG, Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Matt Driskill)