Behind Wells Fargo's Record Earnings

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California lender Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) may well have produced record net income in the second quarter, beating the analysts' estimate along the way. A boom in mortgage refinancing, spurred by low interest rates, certainly didn't hurt the largest home lender in the United States. However, investors shouldn't be distracted -- they need to keep their focus on the evolution of the bank's loan book, which is less cheery.

As Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) remarked: "Against the credit performance, the primary concern is NPAs [non-performing assets] up 45% on a linked quarter, which is among the highest rates of growth of any bank we cover and much higher than the 15-20% growth seen at most other big banks such as BAC, USB etc ..."

This suggests that greater-than-expected loan losses could pop up to upset earnings through the second half of the year and into 2010. Is that prospect priced into the shares?

How are the shares priced?
At yesterday's closing price of $25.35, Wells Fargo shares are valued at 1.41 times book value per share. While that is at the high end of its peer group (see the table below), the shares haven't traded at such a low multiple in over 15 years. Between March 1994 and the start of the credit crisis in July 2007, Wells' price-to-book value hit a low of 1.90 in December 1994. Since then, the shares have produced an annualized return of 13.6% -- double the market return of 6.8% over the same period.


P/BV Multiple

% Return Since March 9 Market Low

US Bancorp (NYSE: USB  )



Wells Fargo



JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  )



PNC Financial (NYSE: PNC  )



Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  )



Citigroup (NYSE: C  )



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Note that some BVs are not updated for the latest earnings releases.

Will they outperform?
Can we expect Wells shares to outperform on an ongoing basis? It's no certainty -- two questions are critical:

  • How will legacy loans perform? (Commercial real estate is an area of particular concern.)
  • What sort of profitability can we expect for banks in a post-bubble environment?

Existing shareholders (I'm including myself) should also consider the likelihood that Wells Fargo will dilute their holdings by issuing more shares during the next 18 months. With all that said, I think it's a decent bet that this lender will outperform the S&P 500 over the next five to 10 years -- though probably not with the same margin it has enjoyed over the last 15.

Respected asset manager GMO is forecasting that "high-quality" U.S. stocks will beat large-cap stocks by more than six percentage points annually over the next seven years! Morgan Housel has identified three high-quality companies that are still cheap.

More Foolishness:

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Alex Dumortier, CFA has a beneficial interest in Wells Fargo, but not in any of the other companies mentioned in this article. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2009, at 10:15 AM, Gregeph wrote:

    It seems to me that the problems with the write-offs are serious but temporary. They have already made large purchase accounting adjustments with the Wachovia acquisition, which the market seems to underappreciate. It makes sense to take Buffett's lead and focus on the long-term earnings power of the franchise. They have a strong national platform and a track record of gathering assets at a low cost. The number to focus on is their return on assets. If they can achieve their long term average return of about 1.5% on $1.3 trillion in assets, they could earn $20 billion annually. Assets should grow over time, especially in an environment where many competitors are weakened. Also, Wells is very good at cross selling products to its customers which should help earnings as they more broadly serve their new Wachovia customers. This is not to say that there is no risk. The economy is still weak and not out of the woods. I agree with the Alex that there is still the possibility of further dilution. One approach to this risk is to demand lower prices before purchasing shares in order to hedge against future dilution. This would give a greater margin of safety. Otherwise, if your target is not met, be disciplined and pass.

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