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As Wells Fargo takes banking reins, confidence is top asset

Wells Fargo displayed on Wednesday that it really is the Big Kahuna of Florida banking at a time when many bank competitors are in a serious hurt.

The California banking company reported quarterly earnings — a $2.55 billion loss, in fact — and the market still decided to reward Wells by pushing its stock to $21.19 a share, an astonishing 30.88 percent jump.

The practical impact is Wells Fargo's market value rose by $16 billion in a single day to $70 billion. In contrast, Bank of America has a market value of $37 billion and Citigroup's is just $23 billion. Combined, the value of these behemoth competitors is smaller than Wells at the moment.

For those napping out there, Wells Fargo bought Wachovia Corp. at the start of this year. In so doing, Wells became the No. 1 banking company in Florida. Ads promoting the Wells-Wachovia merger are under way (given its name, Wells Fargo is big on Old West stagecoach images). Later this year, "Wachovia" will be retired and replaced by the Wells Fargo name.

Amid banks asking for federal infusions of capital, Wells (which has accepted one round of federal dollars worth $25 billion) says it does not need more federal aid to absorb troubled Wachovia. Wells is even leaving its dividend untouched while many banks are slashing theirs.

Wells has — how can I put this? — a proud personality that we are just starting to encounter. Wells CFO Howard Atkins and Wells CEO John Stumpf shed some light on the bank's style in Wednesday's earnings call.

Atkins spoke at length about Wells' ability to avoid many of the nasty financial pitfalls that hurt other banks.

Wells, he said, did not lose its disciplined lending standards, so many of its loans and mortgages have not gone bad.

Wells, he said, did not and will not offer tantalizing CD rates because it does not need to. Customers tend to stick with Wells without the sweetener of high-rate deposits.

And Wells, he said, did not choose in recent years to grow at a double-digit pace by forfeiting profitability.

"We were building our capital in that period waiting for the dam to break, and it sure did," Atkins said.

We may have gotten a slight preview of Wells in action already. The Sembler Co. sold its stake in St. Petersburg's struggling BayWalk — the former linchpin to the city's downtown rebound — to developer Fred Bullard, who in turn hoped to gain some flexibility from BayWalk's mortgage holder. It did not happen, and BayWalk fell into foreclosure. Now mortgage holder Wells Fargo is expected to gain formal control of BayWalk in a scheduled Feb. 13 foreclosure auction and, presumably, put it up for sale.

Cut and dried. By the book. Disciplined.

Stumpf, Wells Fargo's CEO and its apparent people person, pointed to a silver lining of absorbing Wachovia during such a weak economy.

"Wachovia's talented team members are choosing to stay with the company in greater numbers than we anticipated," he said. "These are really terrific team members who are among the very best at serving their customers. And customers that left Wachovia prior to the merger are coming back and are excited about giving Wells Fargo their business."

Florida: Meet Wells Fargo.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

As Wells Fargo takes banking reins, confidence is top asset 01/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 11:11pm]
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