Friday, January 11, 2013

Fiscal cliff actually helped Wells Fargo's loan book

You know by now the top line number from the Wells Fargo earnings report today: profits of $4.9 billion for shareholders (another record). Here are a couple other things worth noting:

Fiscal cliff actually helped the bank's loan book. All the talk last month was about uncertainty associated with the political showdown over the automatic tax increases and spending cuts. But the debate actually helped boost Wells Fargo's loan portfolio. "I would say the fiscal cliff was a net positive to loan growth," Chief Financial Officer Tim Sloan said on a call with analysts. He said some of the bank's corporate clients increased their loans, particularly at the end of December, as the specter of higher taxes in the future loomed. The bank's core commercial loan portfolio grew 3 percent from the quarter before, to $358 billion.

Real estate footprint shrinking. Wells Fargo shrunk its office holdings by 4.5 million square feet in 2012, Sloan said, as the bank continues to try to cut costs. The bank's eliminated 16 million square feet total since 2008.

More capital to shareholders requested. Sloan confirmed that Wells has asked the government for the go-ahead to distribute more capital to shareholders in 2013 than it did in 2012. He didn't give any indication on what combination of dividend increases or share buy-backs that entailed. Sloan said later on the call that the bank does want to buy back more shares in the coming years. Wells repurchased 120 million shares in 2012 and increased its dividend from 12 cents to 22 cents.

Are more legal settlements coming? The bank's earnings included a $644 million loss stemming from a legal settlement announced Monday on mortgage servicing. One analyst asked whether Wells expects another round of legal activity when it comes to mortgage issues. The response from CEO John Stumpf: "We put a lot of that stuff behind us. Some of that is inherent to the business; as the business gets better, I'd expect less of that but I'm pleased with how much we've gotten through." When pressed, he added this: "I can’t predict what’s all going to come up. But I’ll tell you, I'm pleased that we’re this far through.”

Changes possible at branches. Wells Fargo says it has a branch -- or store, as the bank calls it -- within two miles of half the American population. But banks like Bank of America have been trimming their networks as more activity moves online. Stumpf got a question about what Wells was planning when it comes to branches. After touting the bank's reach and saying most customers still decide on a bank based on proximity, he hinted that changes could be coming to the size of its branches and its staffing levels. "That needs to evolve and it is evolving."

Qualified mortgage rule a good step. The banking industry is still taking in the 800-page "Ability to Repay" mortgage rule issued Thursday, which seeks to prevent risky lending. While joking that he hadn't read the whole thing yet, Stumpf called the rule something that would benefit consumers. "It provides clarity and I think it's going to help more Americans get more credit," he said. "That's good for housing and good for America."