Wells Fargo & Co. Earnings Call Nuggets: Capital Priority Strategy and Mortgage Applications Costs

Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) recently reported its first quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call.

Capital Priority Strategy

Erika Penala – Bank of America Merrill Lynch: My first question, John, is on your capital priority. It’s clear that the dividend is on top of the list and your yield is clearly best-in-class. However, I wonder how you think about weighing your buyback opportunities versus strategic opportunities for acquisition, because on one hand most of your shareholders are clamoring for more buyback and to actually see shares outstanding, the count, reduced. But on the other, you have – not a lot of banks that have your currency. So I guess if you could give us an insight on how you are thinking and weighing these issues. And in additionally, does the trajectory of mortgage have anything to do with favoring one strategy over the other?

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John G. Stumpf – Chief Executive Officer: Sure. We have stated publicly, and I know you know this, that our payout ratio, we have targeted 50% to 65%. I believe the first call in capital is to grow the business, and we have ample capital to do that and meet those payout targets. With respect to M&A. Remember that the biggest users of capital on an M&A side would on the deposit side of the franchise, of which, of course, we are at our statutory, federal statutory number or close to it. And the acquisitions that we have talked about being interested in would be mostly bolt-on businesses to our existing portfolio suit of the kind of 80 different businesses we do here and predominantly in the United States. So, we’ve done some portfolios in the past. We’re still interested in things around (lower profit) retirement, but I don’t see that as a huge draw on our capital. This Company is uniquely positioned that we are producing terrific returns in absolute terms and in relative terms; there’s plenty of liquidity and performance there to meet a number of goals. Again, investing in our business, doing strategic bolt-ons where they make sense, and returning capital to our shareholders are the kind of levels we’ve talked about.

Erika Penala – Bank of America Merrill Lynch: My follow-up question was for Tim. Speaking of liquidity, I’ve already gotten a few questions in my inbox regarding how high your liquidity levels remain. I guess, could you give – I mean, obviously deposit growth continues to be strong, but could you give us a sense in terms of why you are keeping it at this high of a ratio relative to your earning assets? Is it you are afraid of the duration risk? Is it speaks to a question mark on the duration of deposits flows or is it, as John alluded to, warehousing some cash in order to take advantage of some of the bolt-on opportunities that could be out there?

Timothy J. Sloan – SEVP and CFO: Erika, that’s a really good question, because our liquidity levels are low. We view that as a real positive for the Company. Clearly the first call on our liquidity is always going to be for our customers and we’ve seen good loan growth year-over-year. Our core loans are up $50 billion. But even with that as you point out, we’ve seen very strong deposit growth. We did, deploy some of that liquidity that wasn’t needed for loan growth in the first quarter, at a slightly higher rate than what we’ve seen in the last year when we saw our rates back up. As you recall, we saw rates back up toward the end of the fourth quarter and we purchased some securities. They did back down and then they backed up again through the quarter and we purchased $17.8 billion of MBS. Our plan continues to be to make the right long-term decisions and the right risk adjusted decisions in terms of how we deploy our excess liquidity. We don’t want to significantly increase duration. So our liquidity is up, we view that as a positive and we’re looking forward to deploying it in the future.


Mortgage Applications Costs

Joe Morford – RBC Capital Markets: Now that you’re starting to see a more sustained slowdown in mortgage applications pipeline and originations, how are you thinking about the headcount in this division and have you begun to address some of the variable costs there?

Timothy J. Sloan – SEVP and CFO: We actually added to the number of team members in the mortgage business in the fourth quarter, because we wanted to improve the customer service in the business and you saw – and we’ve seen a reduction in the time from app to close go from about 90 days to 60 days which we view as a real positive and a competitive advantage. The mortgage business is still very strong at $109 billion as we mentioned is our sixth consecutive quarter of originations above $100 billion and we started this quarter with a fairly strong pipeline at $74 billion on an absolute basis, and in relative to almost most quarters we’ve ever been in business. So the business continues to be strong and as I mentioned we also saw an increase in purchase activity in the first quarter, up 31% year-over-year. I think the other positives in the business we’ve now seen an extension of the HARP program and with rates rallying again we’ve got more customers that could take advantage of a refinance and as well as the fact that as housing values go up there would be more customers that could potentially take advantage of a refinance. So I think what we are very bullish on the business that said our expectation is that it’s probably likely that revenues and margins will come down a little bit all that said, to the extent that it comes down further than we think we’ll adjust cost as our team has done through various cycles on a number of occasions, so that may happen this quarter and may not. I kind of hope it doesn’t happen because it means revenues will continue to be growing so that would be nice…

Joe Morford – RBC Capital Markets: But I guess along those lines too I mean what about other opportunities to sustain origination volumes just given some of the capacity issues you’ve had in recent quarters. Maybe perhaps more proactively marketing to tap into some of this pent-up demand.

John G. Stumpf – Chief Executive Officer: I think that’s a really good point and the way that our team thinks about it in one of the reasons we want to make sure that were adequately staffed is that we do view the purchase market as a big opportunity. And so that as refinancing volume comes down which it’s come down over the last two quarters. We have our sales folks out there and our bankers out there being more proactive with our customers.

John G. Stumpf – Chief Executive Officer: That’s a great point, Tim. Joe, this really plays to our strength, our one Wells Fargo working as a team. We have 30,000 plus bankers in our stores, not every one of our customers who call us their bank has their mortgage with us and we’ve kept our relationships with our realtor friends and our builder friends during the big refi time, and this is really where it really pays off. In Tim’s comments he mentioned that purchase volume is up 31% year-over-year, so that’s really important for us.

A Closer Look: Wells Fargo & Co. Earnings Cheat Sheet>>