More than a year after Wells Fargo’s retail bank became embroiled in the phony accounts scandal, its total number of primary checking accounts — once a bragging point — has barely budged.
As the company considers ways to attract customers, there’s one that is off the table for now: raising deposit rates.
That became clear Thursday, when CEO Tim Sloan was asked whether boosting rates for consumers could breathe new life into Wells’ troubled retail unit. Total primary checking customers have been stuck for the past year at 23.6 million.
“The short answer is no,” Sloan told analysts during Wells' conference call to review third-quarter results. “The driver of this is not deposit pricing.”
Like many of its big-bank peers, Wells has not yet begun to pass along the benefit of higher interest rates to its retail customers, though it has offered increases to certain commercial clients.
Sloan said that, over the past year, the San Francisco company has simply been focused on boosting the quality of its retail banking division, rather than the quantity of customer accounts.
He pointed to changes in the company’s retail incentive plan and other “fundamental changes” to the way employees interact with customers.
“At the margin, if you’re competing on price, [you’re] making short-term decisions and missing the opportunity to build long-term relationships,” Sloan said.
The lag in checking accounts is just one of the many ways that the fake-accounts scandal continues to weigh on Wells' performance.
It agreed last year to pay $190 million to settle charges that more than 5,000 branch employees opened more than 2 million unauthorized customer accounts to collect bonus pay. After a third-party review, Wells in August raised the number of potentially affected customers to 3.5 million.
The company has also disclosed problems with the way it charged customers for auto insurance and mortgage rate-lock extensions.
Many facets of Wells' business have been damaged. Notably, consumer loans during the third quarter fell 3% from a year earlier to $451.7 billion.
It is unclear what it will take for Wells to kick-start growth in the embattled consumer unit; the company has not yet embarked on aggressive measures to expand its base of primary checking accounts.
In an interview after the conference call, Chief Financial Officer John Schrewsberry said that Wells — like some of its competitors — has begun offering cash rewards in various markets for customers who open checking accounts.
It’s a more effective option for attracting customers, with interest rates hovering around historic lows, according to Shrewsberry.
Raising deposit rates by several basis points probably would not be enough for customers to “go through the hassle” of opening a new account, Shrewsberry said.
Wells has not been as “broadly aggressive” as some of its peers in offering cash rewards to new customers, he said. But it is also uncertain that doing so would encourage customers to stick with the company over the long term, he said.
On the bright side, the number of customers who use Wells’ digital banking products has increased over the past year. Digital secure sessions rose 6% to 1.5 billion.
That figure suggests that customers who are with the bank plan to stick around, according to Shrewsberry.
“It raises the stickiness bar of who would want to go take a whole weekend out of their lives to switch banks with what we have, from mobile payments to online bill pay,” he said.
During the conference call Thursday morning, Matt O’Connor, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, pointed out to Sloan that he had been on the job for a year.
Sloan last October succeeded John Stumpf, who stepped down under criticism that he had mishandled a reputational crisis.
“A year and a day,” Sloan said quickly, interrupting O’Connor. “Seems like forever, Matt.”