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Wells Pick-A-Pay Plan Poses Risk

SAN FRANCISCO ( TheStreet) -- Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report) has a funny way of easing investor concerns.

After three quarters of astounding, Street-beating bottom lines, Wells' shares are still saddled with credit concerns. Even last quarter, while TARP-laden peers like Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) and Citigroup (C - Get Report) reported losses, driven down by consumers and businesses finking on debts, Wells reported a $3.2 billion profit -- in the league of so-called "healthier" competitors like JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report) and Goldman Sachs (GS - Get Report).

"We want to ask a rhetorical question here -- why is it that when companies like Goldman Sachs have huge trading quarters, the Street cheers that occurrence and bids up the stock--but when Wells Fargo has several (in a row) large mortgage banking quarters, the Street's reaction is "Not sustainable" and the stock gets taken down?" analyst Nancy Bush wrote in a note reiterating her buy rating on Tuesday.

But scrutinizing the numbers more closely gave room for the bears to settle in.

Wells' nonperforming loan ratio has rocketed to 2.61% from just 1.25% just six months ago. The firm has reassured investors that a credit-loss peak is at hand; that Wachovia's bad debt was written down far enough at the time of its acquisition to no longer be a concern; that "not all NPAs result in a loss"; that its loan workout program has yielded positive results; and that Wachovia's most toxic book of loans -- the "Pick-A-Pay" portfolio -- is doing better than initially expected.

On Tuesday it became clear why.

The bank has been allowing homeowners to make "interest only" mortgage payments to stay current, and stay in their residences. They are still tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars "underwater" -- meaning their homes are worth much less than what they owe -- but Wells believes this isn't anything to worry about.
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