Wells Fargo: Finding new normal

  • Article by: JENNIFER BJORHUS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 15, 2014 - 5:41 AM

Wells Fargo profits rose 10 percent despite drop in mortgage refinancing. Loans, fees were bright spots.

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Wells Fargo kept its double-digit profit growth even though its mortgage refinancing business has slowed.

Photo: Seth Perlman • Associated Press,

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Cutting costs, dipping into funds set aside for future bad loans and broad-based loan growth helped push Wells Fargo & Co. to a strong finish for 2013, offsetting the hit the bank is taking from the mortgage refinance slowdown.

The San Francisco-based lender said Tuesday that it had a profit of $5.6 billion in the fourth quarter, or $1 per share, up 10 percent from a year ago. It beat analysts’ per-share estimate by two cents.

Wells Fargo clung to the double-digit profit growth it’s known for, but the big results it enjoyed during the mortgage refi bonanza of the past few years have given way to something more normal.

The $50 billion in new mortgages Wells Fargo made in the last three months of 2013 was the bank’s lowest level in years. Total revenue of $20.7 billion, while up slightly from the previous quarter, fell 6 percent from a year earlier.

Fueling profit growth were strong gains in areas such as investment securities; trust and investment fees, which includes Wells Fargo’s large brokerage business; and card fees.

The bank also curbed expenses, partly through the 5,300 full-time job cuts in mortgage production it made during the third quarter. Some of those cuts were in Minnesota, where Wells Fargo is the dominant bank.

Wells Fargo continues to experience steady overall consumer and corporate loan growth. Car loans, for instance, rose 26 percent from a year ago to $6.8 billion.

Plus, the bank released a substantial $600 million from the reserves it holds to cover future bad loans, citing improving credit quality. The money counted directly as income.

It’s an accounting move the bank makes every quarter now as credit quality has been improving.

“We still could see several more quarters of reserve releases,” said Joe Morford, a banking analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said he doesn’t see 2014 as a breakout year for loan demand or the economy, but told analysts he expects “steady improvement.”

Normal appeared good enough for investors. It looked particularly good next to JP­Morgan Chase & Co., which kicked off bank earnings Tuesday with Wells Fargo but saw profits drop 7 percent from a year earlier.

Wells Fargo shares, which dipped Tuesday morning after the news was announced, rose 3 cents to close at $45.59.

In a CNBC interview, veteran industry analyst Dick Bove called the bank’s quarter “superb.”

“I think the stock should be bought, and I think the problem that people are having with Wells Fargo is they can’t seem to divorce the company’s relationship to the housing market to look at the whole company,” Bove said.

 

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683



 

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