Wells Fargo(WFC) - Get Report has become Warren Buffett's personal elephant in the room. The legendary investor has a 10% stake in the embattled bank. How much patience does Buffett have for the bank's CEO John Stumpf?
Wells Fargo is currently being held to the fire after news reports indicated that employees opened more than two million checking and consumer credit accounts without permission and with the intent of pleasing overzealous managers who pushed insane sales quotas.
The affair is tantamount to massive fraud, and it is significant enough for the United States Senate Banking Committee to summon Stumpf to testify on Tuesday. Fines in excess of $180 million have been paid by Wells Fargo as embarrassing lawsuits and subpoenas are being served. To say that things are not looking good at the moment for Wells Fargo would be an understatement, particularly when the bank has thus far responded with massive layoffs.
What Would Buffett Do?
Buffett is certainly long and bullish on Wells Fargo. His investment banking firm, Berkshire Hathaway(BRK.A) - Get Report(BRK.B) - Get Report , holds more than 450 million shares of the bank holding company. Buffett himself owns a couple of million shares.
Buffett has already been hit by the Wells Fargo fallout. The Wall Street Journal estimated a loss of $1.4 billion for Berkshire Hathaway due to the sharp selloff of the bank's stock in the wake of the scandalous news. The loss even sent Buffett down one spot on Forbes' list of the world's wealthiest individuals.
As a significant shareholder, Buffett is clearly in a position of power with regard to Wells Fargo, which is why it is safe to assume that he must have known about the investigation before details about it went public. Both Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway firm have been silent on the matter, and there has been speculation as to when the billionaire investor will finally speak up.
Could Buffett use his substantial influence to send Wells Fargo Stumpf packing? Such a move would make a very strong statement, but it is still too early to tell if the guru from Omaha would react in such a strong manner. Buffett's reaction will largely depend on how Stumpf performs before the Senate and how the situation continues to unfold; however, there is a strong possibility that there will be pressure on him to break his silence on Wells.
In his prepared remarks for his congressional testimony today, Stumpf says he accepts full responsibility for the bank's unethical practices, but he notably does not tender his resignation. Which begs the question, what exactly does "full responsibility" mean?
What the Future Holds for Wells Fargo and Buffett
Buffett is known as an ethical investor and as a charismatic executive who has reminded the Berkshire Hathaway board that reputation is extremely important for the company's business.
In the past, Buffett has been known to profit from investing in publicly-traded companies with a checkered past; the best example in this regard is Goldman Sachs(GS) - Get Report . Buffett can tolerate some level of malfeasance or negligence as long as he can see room for future improvement.
Buffett could influence Stumpf's departure with the right amount of public communications on the matter. At this point, however, Wells Fargo stock is not looking so bad; notwithstanding the recent selloff, a few analysts have upgraded ratings. As a very intelligent investor, Buffett may know that his losses may be reversed in the weeks to come, and thus he may be thinking that it is wiser to remain silent for the time being.
The author does not have any positions in any stocks in this article.