Wells Fargo touts strength despite flagging mortgage sales

October 11, 2013

Wells Fargo, the largest U.S. home lender, sought to assure investors that its other businesses can make up for flagging mortgage sales after posting a 13 percent gain in profit that partly relied on tapping loan-loss reserves.

Net income advanced in the third quarter to a record $5.58 billion, or 99 cents a share, from $4.94 billion, or 88 cents, a year earlier, the San Francisco-based company said Friday in a statement. The bank reclaimed $900 million from loan-loss reserves while mortgage banking revenue plunged 43 percent.

Chief executive John Stumpf, 60, added to the bank’s three-year string of record profits, outlasting its biggest rival as JPMorgan Chase posted a $380 million loss. Stumpf also told investors he’ll seek approval to raise the dividend. Still, the bank predicted home lending will slide again in the fourth quarter, prompting analysts to ask whether the company can fill the void and produce profit gains.

“How do you mind the gap?” Mike Mayo, an analyst at CLSA, said on the conference call. “It seems like the answer this quarter was partly reserve releases, which equaled over one-tenth of your earnings for the quarter.”

Wells Fargo has cited the diversity and sheer number of about 90 businesses that it runs as evidence it can overcome underperformance at any one unit. While Stumpf has stopped short of pointing analysts to specific operations, Friday’s statement showed credit cards, personal credit management and retail sales finance recorded double-digit revenue growth from a year earlier.

“I know there was a little frustration because everybody wants one business to point to,” chief financial officer Timothy Sloan said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t think of Wells Fargo as a mortgage company; I would think about it as a diversified financial institution,” he said. “Because of that diversification, we don’t have to say, ‘Oh, mortgage is down, so credit-card, you have to pick up the slack.’ Everybody’s going to pick up the slack.”

Wells Fargo shares were little changed at $41.43 in New York as the 24-company KBW Bank Index rose 0.4 percent. The lender’s stock has climbed 21 percent this year through Thursday, trailing the 23 percent gain for the KBW benchmark.

The bank reported declines in revenue, lending margins and the backlog of new mortgage loans. The efficiency ratio, which measures costs as a percentage of revenue, rose to 59.1 percent, missing the firm’s target of 55 percent to 59 percent. Non-interest expenses were little changed at $12.1 billion.

— Bloomberg News

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