SAN FRANCISCO (
) -- Everyone calm down:
isn't going to stop taking deposits or making loans.
It's just going to charge more for deposits, stop making risky loans and stop maintaining the employees and branches that it uses to achieve that end. For investors this is a good thing; for consumers it's a bad thing; and for the company and broader banking industry it's a sign of the times.
As of July 1, Wells Fargo began implementing a $5 monthly fee for basic checking accounts that fall below a $1,500 minimum balance. On Wednesday the San Francisco-based bank also announced plans to "restructure" its consumer-finance business by shutting down the Wells Fargo Financial division that has been operating for roughly a century.
As a result, Wells will stop originating subprime mortgages that were once part of the division -- something it indicated in regards to auto finance months ago -- and merge the rest of the division into the broader franchise. The change will result in 638 branch closures and up to 3,800 layoffs. Investors will see near-term charges of $185 million, or less than 3 cents per share, before taxes, which will be offset by cost savings by mid-2012.
Wells is the fourth-largest bank in the country with more branches than any other at a time when the government is pressuring big banks to get smaller and de-risk. Getting out of subprime is certainly one way to do that and, if anything, Wells is far behind competitors in that sense.
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Bank of America
acknowledged its subprime exit somewhere around the Countrywide acquisition.
did the same, with CFO Mike Cavanaugh saying the bank had "almost no subprime production" in March 2008.
subprime business is part of its "bad-bank" Citi Holdings entity that's set for divestiture or wind-down.
Those large competitors are facing pressure to chip away at their "too big to fail" status, too.
Bank of America
has already sold stakes in foreign entities like
. Citi has its ongoing restructuring process, while it's unclear what JPMorgan's plan is. The House of Dimon seems to be thumbing its nose at new requirements as a result of financial reform, but has outsized exposure to
private equity and has a huge capital-markets operation that will be coming under tighter rules.
Wells Fargo, meanwhile, has been earning its keep in more traditional fashion: Deposits and loans.
The firm may have room to grow in capital markets activities and advisory services. But for the time being its addition of a $5 fee for a service that used to be free is a reflection of the fact that banks
still have to make money, and new legislation isn't letting them price risk the way they once did. Federal regulators have already begun implementing rules that will disallow banks from charging for overdrafts or suddenly raising interest rates and cap fees charged to merchants for credit- and debit-card services.
Again, in this sense, Wells is following competitors: Citi was the first to try to "sneak" fees onto previously free deposit accounts; JPMorgan executives have been vocal about the need to do the same;
Bank of America is
assessing its pricing structure for all services to figure out which consumers can take the hit and remain profitable for the franchise.
After all is said and done, it appears that Wells will maintain its No. 1 status in terms of footprint: It will still have 6,600 "regular" branches and 2,200 mortgage-only locations. The Wachovia acquisition nearly doubled Wells Fargo's size and greatly expanded its scope, which has never been centered on subprime lending to begin with.
In fact, even though Wells Fargo Financial has been part of the bank for a long time, less than 2% of the company's home loans -- subprime or otherwise -- are now originated there.
As the head of Wells Fargo Financial, David Kvamme, explains, "the economics of a separate Wells Fargo Financial channel are no longer viable, especially now that our customers have access to the largest banking and mortgage store network in the United States."
Independent bank-stock analyst Nancy Bush noted that Wells Fargo Financial hasn't been in "growth mode" for some time. She adds that any business associated with subprime or near-prime loans will end up with added scrutiny from the consumer-protection agency that is part of the financial reform bill.
"This was a surprise but a move in a rational and logical direction in response to changing circumstances on the ground," said Bush, of NAB Research, adding her rating on the stock in capital letters: "BUY."
Bush said the "worst part" of the announcement was that "there is now a whole segment of the American populace that will be cut off from credit." While she doesn't argue with the fact that subprime lending was out of control during the boom, Bush points out that there are many more consumers in that category now because of high unemployment levels (which, ironically, Wells Fargo's announcement actually exacerbates).
Dick Bove of Rochdale Research agreed that the move won't much affect Wells Fargo's bottom line in the near term, but used it as an opportunity to express his frustration with the financial reform bill.
"Ironically, it is likely that Wells will benefit by this closure by off-loading a subpar operation," said Bove. "The workers and consumers associated with this business will not. This is totally in keeping with my view that FinReg will harm everyone but the banks."
More on Wells Fargo Wells Fargo Gets Out of Sub-Prime
-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York