The highly respected Melvyn Ford has left his position as head of Asian prime broking at Merrill Lynch. A doyen of the Asian prime broking scene, he joined Merrill Lynch to run prime brokerage after a stint at Deutsche Bank.

Brian Canniffe and Eddie Guillemette have been named new co-heads of the business. The former will oversee trading and risk-related matters and the latter will be responsible for sales, capital introduction and consulting services in the region.

No reason has been given for Ford's departure but other prime brokers in the market speculate that Merrill Lynch might be ready to point its prime broking operation in a new direction. A Merrill Lynch spokesman says a re-framing of the business will not take place, but rather that having gone through a protracted building stage, it is now being positioned towards delivering an execution phase.

The other gossip is that his departure is a way of concentrating the bonus pool by reducing the numbers of those dipping into it û departing staff are paid out of a restructuring pot, not from the bonus pot. The Merrill Lynch spokesman says that if this were the case, then such an exodus would have involved more than one person.

Merrill Lynch built its staff numbers in prime broking through an extremely active hiring programme in 2006 and 2007. It now employs many well-regarded and experienced personnel in the Hong Kong prime broking world.

Ford's former colleagues are perhaps feeling a little uneasy though. More than one Hong Kong prime broker has told AsianInvestor that it has been in receipt of a number of resumes from Merrill Lynch prime broking staff during the last week.

Merrill LynchÆs prime broking business was praised by many hedge fund managers in 2007 as it tackled the difficult area of accommodating and margining illiquids, and helping hedge funds find introductions to exciting new deals.

As the credit crunch hit, Merrill Lynch had to deal with its well-documented subprime write-offs. Illiquids have without a doubt become more expensive and Merrill Lynch was very active in this field. However, the firm says it has not passed on any additional costs to clients and there hasnÆt been a fall in client balances.