It takes a long time to turn around a big ship. Perhaps even longer for a stagecoach that's carrying $1.9 trillion of assets.
Wells Fargo's freshly installed chief executive made clear Friday that he wants to chart a new course following the revelation that thousands of the firm's employees opened phony accounts in order to meet sales goals. But Tim Sloan made few promises about what the megabank will eventually look like, and how long the changes will take to implement.
During a conference call with analysts, Sloan promised greater transparency in the wake of the company's widely criticized decision not to disclose the investigation into the opening of some 2 million fake bank and credit card in its public securities filings. He spoke about shifting from a sales-oriented business culture to one that is focused more on customer service. And he acknowledged that some of the company's 6,100-plus branches may need to be closed.
Wells is clearly improvising after being caught flat-footed by a blossoming, five-week-old scandal. Sloan, who replaced John Stumpf as CEO on Wednesday, suggested the turnaround is a work in progress and that the situation calls for patience.
"Candidly I'd be a lot more nervous, if I were you, if I came out with some new strategic plan for Wells Fargo in 48 hours," he told analysts at one point. "That would be pretty dangerous from my perspective."
Some analysts, though, seemed frustrated with the lack of detail. The biggest takeaway from Friday's call was that "Wells management doesn't know what the consumer bank will look like in the future," Brian Kleinhanzl, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, wrote in a research note.
Sloan on Friday apologized repeatedly for the scandal, which led to Stumpf's early retirement. The bank will spend $50 million on enhanced monitoring, hold an additional investor day next year and provide more details as warranted, he said.
"We had serious problems in our retail bank where products became the focus instead of our customers," Sloan said. "There was clearly something wrong and we will make the necessary changes to fix it. Our senior leadership should have and could have done more."
"There is a lot we need to get right," he added. "Make no mistake, I get it, and our team is on it."
But Sloan dodged numerous questions about both the scandal and a probe that will be conducted by an outside law firm that was hired recently by Wells Fargo's board. He also declined to list the number of states and municipalities that so far have pulled their bond underwriting business from Wells for a year.
Asked why Wells did not disclose an investigation by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office into illegal sales practices, he said the company was limited in its ability to discuss confidential supervisory information.
"It's a tricky one," Sloan said. "There's a limitation on what you can talk about while you're in the middle of a negotiation with a regulator. We think about the circumstances in the moment. We're not alone with that discussion, and usually the circumstances are governed by the regulator."
In a later interview with American Banker, Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry said, "Some people feel differently about it after the fact, but I assure you that it was well thought about and comprehensively reviewed as part of our litigation disclosure."
Sloan also demurred when asked whether Wells plans to release publicly the results of an investigation by the law firm Shearman & Sterling, which has been asked by the company's board to look into how such widespread misconduct could have occurred.
Nancy Bush, an analyst with NAB Research, said in an interview: "I think it's extremely important that that board investigation be made public when it's completed."
But the company is facing numerous government investigations and lawsuits, in addition to the demands of investors. Wells Fargo did release several pages of information Friday about how the scandal impacted its business during the month of September. It said consumers opened 143,000 fewer checking accounts in September than they did in September 2015 and that new checking accounts fell 25% from a year earlier and 30% from August 2016.
Wells also received 77,000 fewer consumer credit card applications last month than it did in September 2015, a 20% decline. The fall-off was 30% when compared with August 2016.
"There was as much transparency as I think they could put forth," Bush said.
During the conference call, Shrewsberry said that he could not quantify the scandal's impact on Wells' revenue. But he said that the company will add people in control positions at a cost of "tens of millions of dollars."
Shrewsberry also spoke about a shift consumer banking from a "sales-oriented" culture to one that is more "service-oriented."
One element of that shift involves changing how Wells Fargo incentivizes its employees. The firm ended sales quotas on Oct. 1, but its new compensation scheme is still under development.
"The new program, with its service orientation, will be installed at the first of the year," Shrewsberry told American Banker. "And I'm pretty confident that we will be transparent with people about how that works."
Erik Oja, an analyst at Standard & Poors, welcomed the promised change in focus.
"I think it's a huge positive to get away from cross-selling," he said. "I don't think everybody wants to have all their accounts with one bank."
During quarterly earnings calls, analysts are often deferential to Wells Fargo's management, but they were not on Friday.
Mike Mayo, an analyst at CLSA, complained that newly installed board chairman Stephen Sanger was not
available to answer questions. He also griped about Wells' refusal to provide certain information about the scandal, in light of the Shearman & Sterling investigation.
"We can't ask who knew what and when, and we can't ask why it took so long to stop the problems," Mayo said.
At one point, Sloan, who has been with the company for 29 years and was in line to succeed Stumpf even prior to the scandal, was asked whether thought was given to bringing in fresh blood.
"I think the board, by the changes that we've made over the last week," he responded, "is comfortable with and very supportive of the management team."
Wells' third-quarter earnings fell 2.6% from the same to $5.6 billion, or $1.03 a share, in the third quarter, beating by two pennies a share a consensus of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Revenue rose 2.1% to $22.3 billion.