What Prompted Ken Lewis to Suddenly Resign, Anyway?

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In a stirring letter to employees he sent out last night, the Bank of America chief spent a lot of time talking about the things that he says did not prompt his resignation: It wasn't because he felt under pressure from the federal government, he said. It wasn't because of the ongoing investigation by the New York attorney general's office into the Merrill Lynch takeover, or pressure from the board, and obviously (he doesn't say this, but stipulated) he could give a crap about what certain pundits think should happen.

"I will simply say that this was my decision, and mine alone," Lewis wrote.

But he doesn't really address why he made this decision. Why he would choose to leave the bank at which he has worked for 40 years with no clear successor in place, instead of seeing the TARP repayment through and restoring the bank's reputation and his own good name. And thus, we are forced to inspect the anecdotal evidence for clues.

Like this snippet in the Wall Street Journal, which suggests something happened to Lewis on that Labor Day weekend in the mountains of Colorado that prompted his decision. That he had an experience, possibly involving peyote and/or a sweat lodge and/or a vision of the ghost of Hugh McColl saying, "Screw it."

One sign to company insiders that something was up: Mr. Lewis returned to work after Labor Day in a full beard, which no one at the bank had ever seen before. He shaved it off after one day.

That this fact appeared in the lede of the WSJ story tells us that it's important. These folks have been covering Bank of America for years — they knew something was up with the beard, but they can't allege use of hallucinogens, obviously, so it's up to us to read between the lines. And look at the way they chose to end their story:

By 9 p.m. Wednesday, Mr. Lewis was back at home in Charlotte. "He is unavailable to talk," Mr. Lewis's wife said. "He is exhausted."

Right? At that age, stuff'll wear you out.

Ken Lewis’ Farewell Letter: A Journey “Not For the Faint of Heart" [WSJ]