Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Five takeaways from Wells Fargo's 4Q earnings

While Wells Fargo's ongoing decline in mortgage banking revenue made headlines Tuesday, there's more worth mentioning from the San Francisco bank's fourth-quarter report. Here's a look at five key takeaways:

1. Mel Watt's appointment is met with optimism.
During an earnings call with analysts, Wells Fargo's CEO, John Stumpf, spoke optimistically about Watt, the new head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, saying the bank is looking forward to working with him.

"We know him. I believe he has the same interests we all have as Americans and as our institution that make mortgage lending and money available to credit-worthy Americans so they can buy houses," Stumpf said.

Watt stepped down as a North Carolina congressman to take the FHFA post, to which he was sworn in this last week. His congressional district ran from Charlotte to Greensboro.

The real estate industry is keeping a close eye on Watt and what his housing policies might be. The FHFA oversees the government bailed-out mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

2. Branches are not expected to see a large net increase.
Don't expect Wells Fargo to substantially grow its number of branches in 2014. Stumpf said that although the bank will build branches this year, it will consolidate others. That means, he said, there won't be a large net increase in branches, which Wells Fargo refers to as "stores."

"We're making a lot of investments in technology as customers are interested in mobile and other ways to access us," he said. "We still believe that stores are important, and we believe that because our customers tell us that."

Wells Fargo, like other banks, has been trimming branches as the industry seeks to cut costs. As of June 30, Wells Fargo had 6,293 branches, down from 6,312 the year before, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

3. Home price gains expected to slow.
The sizable annual gains in home prices are expecting to shrink. Stumpf said he expects appreciation of 3 to 5 percent in 2014, in line with what some economist are predicting.

In December, average home prices rose 9 percent in the Charlotte region, the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association said last week. Low supplies of homes for sale are credited with helping drive up prices in the region. According to the association, the inventory of homes for sale sank to a 4.8-month supply in December.

"While we don't expect the same rate of home price appreciation we had last year, we do expect the housing market to continue to recover, which will benefit the U.S. economy," Stumpf said. "And despite the rise in home prices, and interest rates over the past year, housing is still very affordable."

4. Cross-sell strategy is paying off.
Wells Fargo continues to boost the number of products it sells per retail banking household. In the quarter, it hit a record of 6.16 products per household, up from 6.05 percent a year ago.

The bank wants to get that number to at least eight.

5. Head count is coming down.
As other banks have done to cut costs, Wells Fargo has decreased its number of employees.

Wells Fargo shed 5,700 jobs in the quarter, or 2 percent of its work force, from the third quarter. Many of those cuts were in its mortgage business, which has seen a slump in demand for refinancing amid higher mortgage rates.

The bank's current work force is 264,900. It employs roughly 20,700 in the Charlotte region.