Negative headlines and wire stories poured into Merrill Lynch's Asian HQ in the Asia-Pacific Finance Tower in Hong Kong on Friday.
News that the investment banking head for Asia and Australasia, Lou Wolfe was out, as was Singapore-based FIG head, Steve Theobald, as well as senior bankers covering India and Chinese banks, prompted further rumours about a deep cull - and signalling fears that Merrill is losing its momentum in the region.
On the positive side, Merrill replaced Wolfe with two highly regarded co-heads who have done much to win Merrill business this year. These are workaholic Sam Poon - whose background is on the debt side prior to running corporate finance - and Aj Rahman, whose background is running ECM, and whose energy is demonstrated by the fact that he has five children under the age of three.
Wolfe had kept an almost Greta Garbo-style profile in Asia, being shy of talking to the media and explaining exactly what Merrill was trying to achieve. This, many agree, has fueled an external perception problem. Poon and Rahman are, among other things, more attuned to the external image issue and are highly communicative individuals.
Equities will be taken over by Simon Brookhouse, who returns from Australia, while FIG will be headed by Matthew Welch, who Merrill brought over from ABN AMRO, where he had been responsible for buying Asian banking franchises for the Dutch giant. He started his career as an international officer at HSBC.
At the very top, the chairman role will be split between existing chairman, Ramundo Yu (who hails from the private banking side of Merrill) and Chek Lo, who ran debt, equity and banking, and will continue to be based in Singapore.
One of the messages Merrill will try to communicate over the coming weeks is that, while the bank has cut back, much of the bad news has been on the retail side and not the institutional side. The bank says that major corporate clients will notice few changes among those calling on them. Moreover, Merrill will seek to assert that it still has one of the most comprehensive investment banking teams in Asia compared to its peer group.
Still reeling from the way the downsizing has been handled in New York - a PR disaster of the first order - the Asian franchise will seek to explain that the negative hype is running way beyond the reality, and that under Poon & Rahman the firm's deals and the face it presents to the outside world are likely to markedly improve.
Meanwhile, other firms are also seeing major names go. Indeed, in spite of its high standing in the M&A league tables this year, it is highly telling that JPMorgan's M&A boss Richard Kelly was another high profile name to go last week.