Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf is reassuring in public about the impact of falling oil prices on the overall economy and his consumer-driven bank, saying that most Americans are benefiting from lower gas prices.
But behind the scenes the $1.78 trillion-asset Wells has clearly swung into action in case his forecast proves wrong. The bank's energy team in Houston is slicing and dicing the downside risks posed by crude oil prices dropping below $30 a barrel. And it is studying threats not only to Wells' oil-and-gas portfolio, but to mortgages and other parts of its business if the energy crisis persists and the contagion spreads to the rest of the economy.
"We have some of the most skilled people — 250 or so folks — who are big-time focused on this," Stumpf said Friday on a conference call with analysts. "The economy in the U.S. is more diversified so the communities in which energy plays a role are more diversified. Companies this time around reacted much more quickly; in past corrections there was much more hope and prayer going on for higher prices or a rebound."
Wells has set aside $1.2 billion in reserves, or 7% of its total $17 billion noninvestment-grade oil and gas portfolio, to cover potential losses. That was higher than set-asides by other major banks that have reported fourth-quarter earnings, such as Regions Financial (6%) and U.S. Bancorp (5%).
Still, Stumpf cautioned analysts to have some perspective given that just 2% of Wells' $920 billion loan portfolio is invested in oil and gas companies.
Bankers are bearing the brunt of market hits in recent weeks with concerns about volatility in China and a glut in the global supply of oil.
In an interview after the conference call, Wells' Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry said analysts' are hyper-focused on Wells' actions on oil because as one of the largest energy lenders, the bank helps set the standard for others.
"Everybody on that call knows [oil and gas] is 2% of Wells Fargo's [portfolio] but it's a bigger percentage for other banks," Shrewsberry said. Wells' 7% reserve appropriately reflects the fast-changing issues in the oil sector, he said.
"We could imagine prices not improving from where they are today," Shrewsberry said. "There's a lot more to what losses are going to look like in 2016 versus 2015 than the price of crude."
Wells reported oil-and-gas portfolio chargeoffs of $118 million in the fourth quarter, up $90 million from the third quarter.
"We're all being appropriately tough to protect the interests of the bank, and we're all working with each customer to help them through this," Shrewsberry said. "It doesn't do anyone good for us to end up holding oil leases."
Brian Foran, an analyst at Autonomous Research, said Wells' exposure was "bigger than realized" given it also has an energy equity portfolio of more than $1 billion.
Since the reserve ratio is relatively high and quarterly chargeoffs rose, "it seems to point to cumulative losses on energy loans of over 8%," Foran said. "Three months ago all the banks were saying they had a 2.5% energy reserve and everything is fine."
Wells is analyzing the credit impact of oil prices on other sectors of its business. The bank's energy team is looking at metro areas with employment of 3.5% to 5% or more in the energy sector. It also is looking at payments data and income-growth related data to gauge the impact.
"The entire credit organization is focused on how that might change," Shrewsberry said. "For most of our customers, lower fuel costs mean lower transportation, heating and power costs. It's not bad for the business. It has a net simulative effect so we haven't seen a big spillover yet."
When asked by Foran if the U.S. had entered an "industrial recession," a term used by Fastenol Co., a Winona, Minn., maker of nuts, bolts and hand tools that is struggling, Shrewsberry instead pointed to strong loan growth.
"It doesn't feel like a manufacturing recession to me," he said.
Concerns about energy dominated the call with analysts, but the company's fourth-quarter report included a mixture of other good and bad news.
Fourth-quarter net income of $5.7 billion, or $1.03 a share, was unchanged from a year earlier, but it still beat analysts' consensus estimates by a penny. Revenue in the fourth quarter rose 1% to $21.6 billion, though it dipped slightly from the third quarter.
Wells' total loans rose 6% to $916.6 billion, and net interest income rose 3.5% to $11.6 billion largely driven by growth in earning assets. However, net interest margin dipped to 2.92%, down from 3.04% a year earlier and 2.96% in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, noninterest income fell 3% to $9.9 billion from a year earlier, driven in part by lower trust, investment and merchant processing fees.
Residential real estate accounts for 36% of Wells' total loan volume. The bank's fourth-quarter residential mortgage loan originations rose 6% from a year earlier to $47 billion, but they were 17% lower than in the third quarter.
Helping the bottom line was the fact that expenses fell 2% to $12.4 billion.
Stumpf characterized Wells as "pretty tightfisted" on expenses.
"We're spending a lot of money on compliance, [cybersecurity] and on mobile payments and a bunch of other things. There is a lot of discussion about managing expenses and making sure they do have a long-term payoff for us," he said.
Total average deposits rose 6% in the fourth quarter to $1.2 trillion from a year earlier.