Wells Fargo & Co. CEO John Stumpf said Tuesday that he "gets" the frustration of the anti-Wall Street movement and that the bank is "trying not to shrink from our responsibilities."
Even as protesters chanted outside and interrupted him at one point, Stumpf made a call for unity during a Minneapolis appearance. Both political parties, as well as "the 1 percent and the 99 percent" need to come together to pull the country through the economic straits it's in, he said.
"We're all in this thing together," Stumpf said during a lunchtime speech at the University of Minnesota.
Stumpf, whose talk focused on the economy, blamed the housing bust, a shift away from manufacturing and the increasingly global workforce for making this downturn and recovery more difficult and drawn out than others.
In addressing the lack of job growth, Stumpf said bank vaults are "overflowing with deposits." But he said small businesses, a key engine for job creation, don't have the confidence to invest.
He said he thinks the housing market is "at best bouncing along the bottom" and one possible way to address the foreclosure crisis is to allow homeowners who fall behind on payments to rent their homes instead of forcing them out.
Minutes into his talk, a group of about 10 protesters at a table reserved by the Service Employees International Union stood up and began yelling, waving a banner that said "Tales of Wells Fargo" decrying the bank's lending policies.
Police quietly escorted the group outside, where about 50 union members, students and community activists were staging a demonstration. The SEIU Local 284, which co-sponsored the protest, represents school and child care workers.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, the nation's No. 1 residential mortgage lender, is one of several bank targets of anti-Wall Street protests that have swept the country in recent months. The demonstrations are tapping discontent over the stagnant economy, housing crisis and growing income inequality. Nearly one-quarter of all U.S. homeowners are now underwater in their mortgages, according to industry estimates.
Last month several hundred people marched on Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank offices in downtown Minneapolis demanding the companies do more to address foreclosures. Although protests in New York and California have led to tear gas and arrests -- protesters smashed windows at a Wells Fargo branch in Oakland, recently -- demonstrations in the Twin Cities have been largely peaceful.
The $28-a-head lunch Tuesday, which drew more than 400 people, was sponsored by the U's Carlson School of Management, which presented Stumpf with a lifetime achievement award.
Stumpf called the protest "an example of people who are frustrated."
"I get that," he told the crowd.
Protesters such as Kira Downey, a 17-year-old University of Minnesota student who told her story at the rally, say they aren't so sure.
In an interview, Downey said she had to cut back her studies to just one course this semester to take a job at a collision repair magazine, largely because of her parents' financial problems. Downey said they've been struggling to get Wells Fargo to modify their $240,000 mortgage, and their Richfield home has been scheduled for a sheriff's sale on Nov. 22.
She said a loan modification Wells Fargo offered after a local alternative newspaper wrote of the plight cut only $10 off the monthly payment. "It's a very hopeless feeling," Downey said.
A Wells Fargo spokesman said the modified mortgage it offered the family cut more than $10 off the monthly payment. The bank will keep working with them, he said, and it will postpone the foreclosure sale if they accept the trial modification the bank offered.
"Foreclosure is an option of last resort, and we are committed to working with our customers to help them avoid it," said Wells Fargo Home Mortgage spokesman Jason Menke.
On Monday, the bank reported that since the start of 2009, it's modified more than 700,000 mortgages.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683