At Wells Fargo's town-hall meetings, executives have fielded countless questions from employees about efforts to resolve scandals that erupted almost three years ago. One looming topic hasn't come up recently: Who will run the bank?
While the abrupt exit of Chief Executive Tim Sloan in March kicked off a succession hunt that has captivated the industry, an unexpected calm has taken hold inside Wells Fargo, according to people close to the firm. The rumor mill — once abuzz with talk of potential candidates — has quieted. Privately, some executives said the continuing search is giving them room to focus on their businesses and work through regulators' remaining concerns.
Yet on Wall Street, the scene is the other kind of sanguine: The stock has slipped into the red for the year. Since its hunt for a leader began, the company has lost almost $24 billion in market value.
That performance puts Wells Fargo behind its largest U.S. competitors this year, signaling frustration in the market over the board's quiet search. The stock has lost 8% since Sloan stepped down in late March, while top rivals have broken even or posted gains. JPMorgan Chase is up 8% and Citigroup 4%.
Much of Wells Fargo's divergence occurred just after Sloan stepped down. The gap later widened, at least briefly, after the lender forecast a bigger drop in interest income than some major rivals as declining interest rates drag on the industry. The firm also faces a regulatory cap on assets imposed last year. Still, those challenges bring some analysts and big investors back to the CEO search. They say they can't advocate buying more shares until the bank installs a leader with the authority to lay out a plan for the future.
"It's really hard to own the stock if there's no long-term strategy being articulated," said Brian Kleinhanzl at KBW.
A company spokeswoman declined to comment, but board Chairwoman Betsy Duke said in March the board would work with urgency to conduct a thorough search.
One thing that does weigh on Wells Fargo employees — the largest workforce among U.S. banks — is the uncertainty around what a new CEO might do next. An outside hire is widely expected to review the bank's strategy.
"There's a tremendous opportunity to streamline," said Kyle Sanders, an analyst at Edward Jones. "I expect a new leader to come in and likely say, 'We're going to let a lot of people go and cut costs to support profitability.' "
Levitt writes for Bloomberg News.