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Bank of America CEO says bank might pay back TARP funds early

Bank of America Corp. could pay back its $45 billion in government capital by late this year or early next year depending on the economy, chief executive Ken Lewis said in an interview Tuesday with the Charlotte Observer.

The Charlotte-based bank may also pay back the government's money piecemeal, Lewis said. He has previously said he is eager to return the money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program but that it would likely take two to three years to pay off the debt. The capital infusion has come with intense public scrutiny and restrictions on executive compensation and shareholder dividends.

"I think we'll have to see how the economy does," Lewis said. "So if you can tell me when you can see the light and see us coming out of this recession, then that's the time you pay it back. It may be that you decide to pay some portion of it back before then. But in terms of paying it totally back then you're probably talking about sometime late this year or sometime early next year when we see the economy improving."

The Charlotte-based bank could actually pay back the money now if it weren't maintaining higher-than-normal capital cushions because of the "fragile" state of the financial system, he said. He also noted that the money is not a "gift" from taxpayers. The bank has already made an initial $402 million dividend payment to taxpayers.

Lewis, CEO since 2001, also told the Observer that he expects his bank to be profitable this year "absent some unexpected meltdown" and to pass the government's stress test.

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