Merrill Lynch paid out about $4 billion in bonuses just days before Bank of America took it over, the Financial Times says this morning.

What raises the eyebrows is the timing: Merrill paid its bonuses before the year was even up, “an unusual step” because bonuses in past years weren’t paid until late January or early February.

Within days of the compensation committee meeting, BofA officials said they became aware that Merrill’s fourth-quarter losses would be greater than expected and began talks with the US Treasury on securing additional Tarp money.

But they went ahead and paid big bonuses anyway, despite losing $21.5 billion in the fourth quarter.

Despite the magnitude of the losses, Merrill had set aside $15bn for 2008 compensation, a sum that was only 6 per cent lower than the total in 2007, when the investment bank’s losses were smaller.

The FT doesn’t mention it, but the company’s employee count was also smaller after thousands of layoffs. So total pay pool dropped only 6 percent last year even though there were fewer people taking that pay.

The timing is notable because the money was paid as Merrill’s losses were mounting and Ken Lewis, BofA’s chief executive, was seeking additional funds from the government’s troubled asset recovery programme to help close the deal.

Merrill and BofA shareholders voted to approve the takeover on December 5. Three days later, Merrill’s compensation committee approved the bonuses, which were paid on December 29.

That looks really bad.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.