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Nye Lavalle

Merrill Lynch & Co. is reeling after a giant write-down in mortgage-related securities. But the job-hopping executive who made the firm a leader in this once-hot, now-troubled arena has moved on.

From 2003 to early 2006, Christopher Ricciardi helped transform Merrill from bit player to powerhouse in the lucrative business of bundling loans into salable securities. But the value of many of the securities, known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, has tanked this summer and fall amid rising mortgage delinquencies.

Mr. Ricciardi liked to be called the grandfather of CDOs. Long before joining Merrill, he helped push Wall Street into risky new areas such as subprime mortgages, those made to home buyers with weak credit. Then he helped turn Merrill into the Wal-Mart of the CDO industry, before leaving behind a roughly $8 million annual paycheck to jump to a small firm that was a Merrill client.

Along the way, he lobbied both credit-rating firms and investors, talking up the safety and juicy returns of CDOs. He and his former Merrill colleagues churned these out frenetically during the height of the boom. Now that the market has soured, leading to billions of dollars in losses for CDO investors, those involved in the business face a growing legion of angry investors.

Merrill, which continued to expand its CDO business aggressively after Mr. Ricciardi left, now is the biggest casualty of the downturn after underwriting many troubled CDOs in the past year. In a conference call with investors yesterday, Merrill CEO Stan O'Neal acknowledged that the firm had fumbled the CDO business: "The bottom line is, we got it wrong by being overexposed to subprime." Mr. O'Neal added that Merrill had misjudged the risk of many CDOs. "It turned out that both our assessment of the potential risk and mitigation strategies were inadequate," he said.

Mr. Ricciardi, 38 years old, has remained a booster of the CDO market. At a meeting this spring -- before the summer meltdown but amid cracks in the market -- he exhorted salesmen, traders and bankers at the small firm he had joined to push investors to buy more CDOs, according to people who were there. "These are the trades that make people famous," he told his troops at the firm, Cohen & Co., say attendees.

Mr. Ricciardi's role is emblematic of the drive that so often pushes Wall Street to extremes. Long after signs of housing troubles first emerged in mid-2005, he and his colleagues at Merrill were setting out to smash records by issuing ever more CDOs.

From the manicured lawns at the exclusive Sleepy Hollow Country Club to the ski slopes of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and wood-paneled rooms of Manhattan's Harvard Club, they courted investors with promises of well-managed risk and outsize returns. They helped to build a small army of a new sort of finance professional, people who manage the mountain of complex debt instruments being created.

Annual issuance of CDOs, which was just $52 billion in 1999, hit $388 billion in 2006, according to research provider Dealogic. The sales of these instruments to investors world-wide brought vast new capital into the business of mortgages, helping recycle loans so lenders could lend more. Thus, the promoters of CDOs played a crucial role in fueling one of the most salient economic phenomena of this decade, the near-global housing boom.

Amid the credit crisis of the past few months, Mr. Ricciardi has kept a low profile. He has expressed frustration over a lack of understanding among critics, says a person familiar with his thinking, who notes that although many CDOs have suffered sharp price drops, most continue to pay out interest as promised. Moreover, not all CDOs are backed by mortgage securities. In a note just posted on Cohen & Co.'s Web site, Mr. Ricciardi said, "I believe the passage of time will very clearly demonstrate which CDOs are of the highest quality."

Growing up in affluent Westchester County north of New York City, Mr. Ricciardi was exposed to high finance at an early age. The son of an institutional stock salesman, he tagged along with his father to the trading floors of Wall Street firms and the New York Stock Exchange. He was captivated by the fast pace and huge sums of money changing hands.

His knack for organizing people was soon apparent. As a teen, he started a business that painted houses around the town of Chappaqua, hiring friends and splitting them into crews to work on several homes at once. His profits helped cover his costs at the University of Richmond in Virginia. One day, recalls his father, Peter, "he called me and said he felt maybe he'd want to point his career in a direction of Wall Street. I thought it was great."

Mr. Ricciardi hoped to find work as a stock trader or investment banker. But there were few jobs on Wall Street outside of fixed income when he graduated amid an early-1990s economic slump. He was soon trading mortgage securities for Prudential Securities. By the late 1990s, with a Wharton School M.B.A. paid for by the firm, he was a banker and rising star in asset finance.

The bundling of loans into salable securities was already a common business, but a much simpler one. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the big government-sponsored mortgage buyers, had long been doing this with ordinary home loans. But as the government began to auction off huge collections of assets from failed S&Ls, Wall Street experimented with more exotic methods.

It bundled together pools of assets containing loans of many different types, ranging from credit-card debt to volatile aircraft leases. With these pools as backing, bankers issued new securities that had varying levels, or tranches, of risk and interest yield. Mr. Ricciardi was among pioneers who took this laboratory of debt repackaging a step further: Bundling the already exotic tranches together into new pools called CDOs.

All of these securities had high-risk tranches, the slices that would bear the brunt of any loan defaults. These often had low credit ratings and were hard to sell, despite their potentially high returns.

Mr. Ricciardi went an additional step in the business of bundling and rebundling, and created new CDOs out of these risky tranches. And the natural structure of a CDO -- whereby the impact of defaults falls first on the riskiest tranches -- made it possible for the safest tranches of even these CDOs to get top credit ratings.

"It was really put in Chris's lap to figure out how to do it," says Joseph Donovan, who was Mr. Ricciardi's boss at the time. In late 1999, Prudential sold a complex CDO backed by a collection of other securities that, in turn, were backed by debts such as mobile-home loans, airplane leases, car loans and credit-card receivables.

Other Wall Street firms began creating similar CDOs, using subprime mortgages, commercial mortgages and various other kinds of debt as building blocks.

Although he had fallen into the field, now he had a jump on a big finance concept, and he led the charge as it grew. In 2000, following Mr. Donovan, he left Prudential to join Credit Suisse Group. He quickly became head of the Swiss bank's U.S. business in the broad field known as structured credit products. Mr. Ricciardi was meticulous and organized, dividing his staff into teams working on several projects at once, just as he did as a teenage painting contractor.

Boosting the CDO boom was a decline in interest rates around the world. This created demand from fixed-income investors who wanted higher interest. Corporate junk bonds provide high yields, but investors soured on them in the post-bubble years of 2001 and 2002 when defaults on corporate bonds spiked. With the housing market surging, mortgage securities seemed to many investors like a better bet. Mr. Ricciardi coached salespeople he worked with to stress that mortgage CDOs offered better interest rates than corporate bonds with similar ratings.

He was in frequent contact with rating firms like Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's, say former analysts, pushing to get the best possible ratings on securities issued by his group. A former managing director at one rating firm says Mr. Ricciardi sometimes personally lobbied senior rating executives for better ratings, but rarely got his way.

By the summer of 2001, Credit Suisse was selling at least one new CDO a month and vaulting up Wall Street's so-called underwriting league tables. In 2001 Credit Suisse underwrote CDOs worth $12.5 billion, nearly double those of No. 2 Deutsche Bank AG, according to Dealogic.

Merrill, by contrast, had a minuscule presence. Its top brass was determined to get bigger in this growing business. Contacted by a headhunter, Mr. Ricciardi jumped to Merrill in 2003.

Merrill was in transition those days. It had a new CEO, Mr. O'Neal, who was trying to turn the firm into a nimble presence that darted in and out of lucrative, fast-growing businesses. His priorities included debt financing and derivatives, or instruments whose value depends on a change in some other asset's value. Merrill, Mr. Ricciardi told BondWeek magazine in January 2004, "had a good foundation for a good CDO business." What it needed was a "jump start."

Part of the strategy involved nurturing a new band of Wall Street professionals, people who help underwriters to create and market CDOs, and then babysit them after they're created. These professionals became known as CDO managers. It's the business Mr. Ricciardi's current firm, Cohen & Co., is in.

That firm is led by Daniel Cohen, a scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family. The firm specialized in providing financing to small and midsize financial firms, helping them issue securities. It was already a Merrill client, and Mr. Ricciardi had dealt often with Cohen & Co. while he was at Credit Suisse.

Merrill leapt from 15th place among CDO underwriting ranks in 2002, when it arranged just $2.22 billion of deals, to the No. 1 spot on Wall Street in 2004 with $19 billion, according to Dealogic. In 2005 Merrill's underwriting total soared to $35 billion, of which $14 billion were backed mostly by securities tied to subprime mortgages.

An industry newsletter, Private Placement Letter, quoted Mr. Ricciardi in early 2005: "The strategy has been to be a high-volume underwriter, with a focus on areas that are very popular." Every quarter, he taped underwriter rankings near Merrill's trading desk, highlighting in yellow the firm's top place.

Merrill salespeople scoured the globe for buyers of CDOs, selling pieces of them to a wide range of investors such as Woori Bank in Seoul, Korea, AXA SA of France, Uniqa Group of Austria and investment funds in Australia and Singapore. Among the buyers was a wireless-broadband company in Dallas called MetroPCS Communications Inc. Last week, in District Court of Dallas County, Texas, MetroPCS sued Merrill over a $134 million investment made this spring in CDOs that Merrill underwrote between 2003 and 2006, while Mr. Ricciardi was still there.

These particular investments were known as auction-rate securities. They were marketed as short-term investments that the buyers could resell, if they wanted to, in auctions run by Merrill. But this summer, as nervous investors began to shun almost anything connected to subprime mortgages, MetroPCS found it couldn't sell the CDOs it had bought, and it now expects to incur losses. Merrill says it believes it "acted appropriately in its dealing with MetroPCS and made the relevant and necessary disclosures to them."

Something similar had happened to some clients of Mr. Ricciardi's previous firm, Credit Suisse, not long after he left that firm. To appease angry clients, Credit Suisse repurchased some auction-rate securities created by Mr. Ricciardi's group between 2001 and 2003. The problem then was loans on manufactured housing, which defaulted in large numbers. After its repurchase of the CDOs, Credit Suisse sold them at a loss, people familiar with the matter said. Credit Suisse declined to comment.

At Merrill, Mr. Ricciardi courted clients at his country club, Sleepy Hollow, where Merrill held an annual August golf outing for money managers and investors, and Merrill's top brass. One regular at the outings was Ralph Cioffi, who managed two Bear Stearns Cos. hedge funds that invested heavily in Merrill Lynch CDOs. In a major casualty of the subprime mortgage turmoil this summer, the two Bear funds ended up losing as much as $1.6 billion of investors' money.

Merrill distributed some of its riskiest CDO slices through its global network of wealthy private clients. One former Merrill executive recalls attending an event at New York's Harvard Club in 2004 at which salesmen described the merits of CDO investing to doctors, hedge-fund managers and businessmen. "They were all rich guys. We would explain how CDOs worked, and how much return they could get if losses didn't go above a certain level," says this former executive. A few individuals later agreed to invest.

Within Merrill, Mr. Ricciardi drew attention at the highest levels. His group became an increasingly important profit center for Merrill, which reaped an estimated $400 million in CDO underwriting profits in 2005.

When Mr. Ricciardi left in February of 2006, signs of trouble in the housing market were already abundant, as both home-price appreciation and home builders' orders slowed. Cohen & Co., aiming to go public, offered Mr. Ricciardi an equity stake if he came aboard. He had wanted a bigger job at Merrill that went beyond CDO underwriting. When it didn't come, he jumped to Cohen -- taking with him several Merrill bankers, salesmen and a technology expert.

Before he left Merrill, Mr. Ricciardi had budgeted for no growth in 2006 in mortgage CDOs at the firm. But following the departures, Dow Kim, then head of markets and investment banking at Merrill, sought to reassure the CDO group that Merrill remained committed to the business, saying it would do "whatever it takes" to remain No. 1 in CDOs, say three people who heard him.

That year, Merrill sharply boosted subprime-CDO issuance to $44 billion, from $14 billion in 2005. Its fees from CDOs jumped to more than $700 million. Well into 2007, Merrill continued to ramp up deals.

At Cohen & Co., Mr. Ricciardi got back in growth mode, beefing up the boutique firm's staff, investing in new technology, and cobbling together many CDOs backed by mortgages, corporate debt, and even loans to hospitals and nonprofits. In the 18 months after his early-2006 arrival, Cohen's assets under management swelled to more than $40 billion from $10 billion. Mostly in conjunction with Merrill as underwriter, Cohen formed 25 new CDOs valued at more than $25 billion, many of which contained subprime mortgages, according to Dealogic data.

Tensions, however, were brewing between the two companies. Prior to 2006, Cohen was by far the biggest client of Merrill's CDO group, in one year contributing around a quarter of its profits. But there was some debate within Merrill over the large amount of financing it was extending to Cohen, and the risk Merrill took in the process.

A few months before he left Merrill for Cohen, Mr. Ricciardi had a heated discussion with another senior Merrill executive on the firm's trading floor. The other executive said it was risky for Merrill to underwrite every Cohen CDO. "Do we want to be the only bank doing Cohen deals?" the executive asked Mr. Ricciardi, according to people who were present. They say that Mr. Ricciardi shot back, "Yes, we do. Why do we want to have anything less than 100% market share?"

When Cohen accelerated its deal-making pace in 2006 and early this year, top Merrill managers decided to limit their exposure to Cohen-managed deals. Merrill was holding billions of dollars in mortgage bonds and other securities that were slated to go into CDOs, exposing the big investment bank to price fluctuations among these assets.

Mr. Cohen made personal phone calls to Merrill's Mr. Kim to try to persuade Merrill to finance more deals, according to people familiar with the situation. Merrill executives said they would do so only if Cohen & Co. agreed to bear a bigger chunk of the losses in case the securities the bank was holding for Cohen fell in value.

Cohen agreed, but also took some of its CDO business to other Wall Street firms, including Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, UBS AG and Wachovia Corp.

At a Sleepy Hollow golf outing about a year ago, Mr. Ricciardi remarked to former Merrill colleagues that Merrill was doing business with too many unknown upstarts, now his competitors, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

This summer's meltdown in subprime mortgages and related securities was swift, hurting Cohen as well as Merrill. Mr. O'Neal yesterday vowed to downsize Merrill's business in structured finance.

Cohen's hopes of going public look unlikely to be realized soon. Meanwhile, a publicly held real-estate investment trust that Cohen manages, Alesco Financial Inc., has seen its share price plunge. Last month it said it said it would not receive cash flows on a September payment date from two CDOs that contain securities backed by subprime home loans. Alesco declined to comment, as did Cohen & Co.

"Everybody was talking about the wonders of all the CDOs and the new innovations," says Stacey Nutt, the president of ClariVest Asset Management LLC in San Diego. They're discovering that these instruments have instead spread risk to parts of the financial system, such as hedge funds and foreign investors, that aren't regulated. "You end up with more risk than you had 15 years ago," Mr. Nutt says. "It's a very scary situation."
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