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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

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Bank of America cuts short conference after outrage at Ukraine comments

‘It was more like Bank of Russia than Bank of America,’ says one viewer, as bank calls online attendees to apologise
Bank of America has cut short an online client conference on geopolitics and apologised to attendees after some balked at what they saw as pro-Russian comments about the war in Ukraine, according to three people who attended the event.

The conference was designed as a two-day event beginning on Tuesday, but BofA Securities cancelled three sessions addressing US sanctions on Russia and Russia-US relations. The move came after some clients complained about the tone of comments by speakers from inside and outside the bank during online forums on Tuesday.

One of the bank’s strategists telephoned clients after the event to apologise for the content of Tuesday’s sessions, according to three people familiar with the matter.

“I still don’t get why US banks still wheel out speakers at events for clients who so often roll through Moscow’s talking points on the war in Ukraine,” Timothy Ash of BlueBay Asset Management, a Russia specialist who attended the conference, wrote on Twitter.

He told the Financial Times: “Clearly Moscow is in an information war with the west. It has an interest in influencing how western banks portray the conflict, and banks need to be mindful of that.”

Bank of America said the meeting was one of many that include external speakers to help its clients understand issues affecting their investment decisions.

It said in a statement: “All our external speakers are independent and the diverse views expressed are their own. We have apologised to those clients who voiced their displeasure at some of the views expressed.”

Investment banks often host speakers with controversial views as part of their efforts to supply a broad range of opinions to their clients. But some of those present at Tuesday’s event said it was unusual for such one-sided views to be presented without there being other viewpoints for balance.

“It was more like Bank of Russia than Bank of America,” said one of those present. “The whole event was overwhelmingly pro-Russian.”

Another person described Tuesday’s sessions as “relentlessly anti-Ukrainian”.

Two people on the call said that Daniel Sheehan, BofA Securities’ senior vice-president for international relations, was critical of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, describing him as “a master manipulator and mimic” about whom there were “serious concerns” in the US administration. A spokesperson for Zelenskyy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A BofA spokesperson said the bank disagreed with this interpretation of Sheehan’s remarks, which had been intended to reflect the views of others, rather than his own.

One of those present said they felt one speaker, Nicolai Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, “said stuff that was absolutely shocking . . . it was straight out of the foreign ministry of Russia”.

However, Petro has countered that people who complained “had their own agenda” and had “really not listened” to what he said.

In his prepared speech, which he shared with the FT, Petro’s remarks included: “Under any scenario, Ukraine would be the overwhelming loser” in the war. Its industrial capacity would be “devastated”, partly by its economic policy of becoming an agricultural superpower “as recommended by the EU and the United States” and its population would continue to shrink as people left to look for employment abroad.

“If this is what Russia meant by removing Ukraine’s capacity to wage war against Russia, then it will arguably have won,” he said.

He said the US government had no interest in a ceasefire as it had the most to gain from a prolonged conflict through a “dramatic increase in EU energy and military dependence on the US”.

After the talk, Ash asked Petro a number of questions. One attendee said that Petro’s views were “not praising [Russian president Vladimir] Putin” and that it appeared that Ash wanted to push an agenda.

Ash said his only agenda was “to make sure western banks adopt a balanced approach to the conflict and don’t get sucked into just echoing Moscow’s talking points”.

Another person present said that, while views such as Petro’s may be offensive to many in the west, it was important to hear them expressed.

“It does convey information about how other people think,” the person said. “If that’s how people in Russia think about how the conflict has evolved, that’s important to know.”
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