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Behind the Issuer: Bank of America

Mike Randall
Finance Expert
Behind the Issuer: Bank of America
CardRates.com Guide: Bank of America®

The evolution of Bank of America into one of the largest banks in the world closely parallels the growth of banking itself in America. The history of the banking industry is one of mergers and consolidations, acquisitions and takeovers. It also involves a lot of regulations and government approvals.

Since Bank of America is a conglomeration of many different banks – each of which had been formed out of various combinations with other banks – a family tree would look somewhat messy. Instead, let’s take a closer look at the DNA of the institution that we currently know as Bank of America.

The origins

In 1904, an Italian-American named Amadeo Giannini opened the Bank of Italy in San Francisco to serve the immigrant and working-class population in that city. Prior to that time, banks had only been for the wealthy, and Giannini recognized a need among newly arrived immigrants for access to loans. His new bank thrived, even remaining open immediately after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

In 1927, Giannini consolidated his Bank of Italy with Liberty Bank of America and merged with Bank of America, Los Angeles in 1928 to form the largest banking institution in the U.S. at the time. However, the company still held the Bank of Italy name until 1930, when it was renamed Bank of America.

Rapid growth

With his philosophy of bringing banking services to regular folks rather than just the wealthy, Giannini was meeting a need other banks had ignored. Bank of America thrived, even during the Great Depression. Expansion into the insurance business led to the creation of Transamerica Corporation, which was spun off in 1953.

Bank of America’s success also led to growth outside of California until the federal government decided to limit interstate banking. First Interstate Bancorp formed out of Bank of America’s institutions that were not in the state of California.

In 1958, the bank introduced BankAmericard, the first credit card intended for the general public and the first to be licensed to other banks. In 1976, BankAmericard changed its name and became what we now know as VISA.

Mergers and acquisitions

As banking regulations changed in the 1980s, Bank of America once again expanded out to other states, acquiring banks in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and Nevada. Banks that eventually resulted from these acquisitions include U.S. Bancorp and KeyBank. Other mergers with banks that stretched eastward across the country helped Bank of America grow into the largest U.S. bank by the mid-1990s, but all of that was about to change.

In 1998, Bank of America was acquired by NationsBank – then the fastest growing bank in the country. However, they kept the Bank of America name and continued expansion, including FleetBoston Financial and MBNA, as well as International banks in South America and the Netherlands.

During the mortgage crisis that began in 2007, Bank of America acquired Countrywide Financial, one of the largest mortgage companies in the U.S. at one time. They also acquired financial services firm Merrill Lynch in 2008, saving that company from certain bankruptcy.

Today Bank of America is the second largest bank in the U.S. It is also considered to be the 12th  largest bank in the world, although there are differences in how that metric is measured. If the U.S. used the same accounting principles as most other countries, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America would be number one and two in the world. Not bad for a small San Francisco bank built around serving the little guy.

Photo source: foxbusiness.com

Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Mike Randall

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