Wells Fargo & Co., burdened with steep home equity losses, announced a plan to part ways with its longtime mortgage chief, spurring speculation about the future of the San Francisco company's home lending arm.

Mark Oman, 53, the senior executive vice president who manages Wells' 47,000-employee home and consumer finance group in Des Moines, said Tuesday that he would retire by the end of next year. Mr. Oman, a 30-year Wells veteran, declined an interview request.

In an e-mail Wednesday to American Banker, Mr. Oman was vague, saying the "time will be right for the home and consumer finance group to move forward with a new leader and for me to look forward to a new chapter in my life."

After a big buildup in its credit reserves to guard against home loan losses — and the expectation of more such losses — some analysts wondered whether Wells was sending a message to Wall Street that it would take plenty of time to weed methodically through a range of internal and external candidates to hire a star successor.

"In this kind of situation, you never know why he's actually leaving — could actually be personal reasons, could be that he's burned out, could be that the bank wants new blood in this position," an analyst said Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, because he did not want to alienate Wells. "But it's an important job at Wells, and the big question is, will whoever they bring in be expected to continue to grow that business and at the same time find new ways to protect the company from future weaknesses, like it has had with home equity?"

Julia Tunis Bernard, a spokeswoman for Wells, said Wednesday that Mr. Oman's retirement plan "has nothing to do" with the company's strategy, and that it was "simply his personal decision to retire."

Wells also said the business that Mr. Oman oversees — which, in addition to mortgages, includes credit cards, consumer lending, auto loans, and commercial credit — will remain in its current form and will continue to be based in Des Moines.

John Stumpf, Wells' president and chief executive, also praised Mr. Oman.

"If there's one word that describes Mark for me, it's integrity," Mr. Stumpf said in a press release. "We're very fortunate that Mark will stay in his current leadership role to ensure a smooth transition."

Wells has weathered the credit crisis better than most other major banking companies and has remained profitable. Nevertheless, it has been badly bruised by soured loans.

The $609 billion-asset company reported last month that its second-quarter net income fell 23% from a year earlier, to $1.75 billion, dragged down by rising defaults in its home equity portfolio. It quadrupled its provision for credit losses from a year earlier, to $3 billion, and it reported that net chargeoffs more than doubled, to $1.5 billion. Nonperforming assets nearly doubled, to $5.2 billion.

Despite the credit crunch and losses of the past quarter, observers noted that Wells' mortgage business has grown exponentially in the 19 years Mr. Oman has overseen it. He is widely respected within the company, an executive recruiter, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday.

"I think what you see here, with announcing this retirement 16 months ahead of time, is a deft political move," the recruiter said. "It essentially leaves Wells' options wide open. They can keep Oman on as long as they need, or they could simply move up his retirement if they find the right person for an internal promotion or if an external star comes their way."

The first year Mr. Oman led Wells' mortgage business, it had 52 locations and originated $4.4 billion of loans. Last year it originated $272 billion from 2,400 locations.

Mr. Oman joined Norwest Corp. — which acquired the old Wells Fargo in the late 1990s — in 1979 in its financial reporting office. He rose through the ranks quickly and was named president and CEO of the mortgage unit in 1989. He became a group head in 1997 and a senior executive vice president in 2005.

"By announcing my retirement plans, I will have more than a year to work with our leadership team to ensure a smooth and orderly transition," he said in the e-mail.

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