What's on the minds of Wells Fargo's (NYSE:WFC) executives these days? The bank's president and chief operating officer, Tim Sloan, gave analysts a glimpse into their thinking at the recent Bernstein strategic decisions conference. Below are four notable points that he made.
1. Branch banking isn't dead
The proliferation of online and mobile banking makes it tempting to conclude that branch banking will soon be a thing of the past. Not only are branches expensive to operate, but the growth of digital channels suggests that customers prefer the convenience of banking wherever and whenever they like -- be it at home on their computers or out and about on their smartphones.
But Sloan, and presumably the rest of Wells Fargo, doesn't believe that branches are going anywhere anytime soon:
There is a misunderstanding today number one that nobody goes into branches or stores anymore. And that's just wrong. We showed some statistics broken down by age group. And what you see is that millennials go into our stores just as often as baby boomers, maybe not as often as for example, my mom and dad who have to go into their Wells Fargo branch thankfully once a week, just to make sure that the money is there. Even though I assure them that it's there.
So that means that we've got to continue to invest in our stores. It means we've got to continue to invest in our ATMs, we've got to continue to invest in online and mobile and the phone bank. And we've got to make that experience with the customer seem seamless regardless of how they want to interact with us.
2. The opportunity in wealth management
One of the themes in the financial industry over the past few years has been the desire among banks to grow their wealth management businesses. While these don't offer as wide of margins as other bank products, they require less capital than lending or capital markets units, and the revenue from managing other people's wealth is stable. The latter in particular helps to boost the valuation of a bank's shares.
Wells Fargo is no different in this regard. As it does in all 90 of its business lines, it's focused on gaining market share in its wealth management franchise. And according to Sloan, there are good reasons to believe that it will be successful at doing so:
We have about 10% of the deposits in the U.S., but we manage 2-ish percent of the wealth. So the biggest opportunity that we have is with our existing customer base. And so that's easy to say, but what does it mean? One of the items that we've highlighted for the last few years has been an effort and a partnership between our retail banking folks and our wealth management folks, to refer retail banking customers that would be brokerage customers or wealth management customers to our wealth and investment management group. And we've consistently now for the last three or four years referred and closed about $1 billion a month of referrals.
3. Why Wells Fargo is growing its investment bank
One of the reasons that Wells Fargo's business model works so well is because the bank has long stayed away from investment banking, which, in today's regulatory environment, can reduce the amount of leverage a bank is allowed to use and increase the amount of cash and equivalents it must hold on its balance sheets. Wells Fargo has nevertheless begun venturing into this territory, as Sloan explained:
When we put Wells Fargo and Wachovia together we saw a absolutely terrific opportunity to be able to grow that business primarily, one, because of the quality of the people that we inherited when we put Wells Fargo and Wachovia together so it's all about the people and the culture from my perspective, and then two, about a strategy which is not dependent upon using your balance sheet to be able to buy business, but it's dependent upon the broadening of those relationships with your existing customers.
4. Additional color on Wells Fargo's profit targets
At Wells Fargo's annual investors day last month, the bank told shareholders that it has lowered its profitability targets. It reduced its full-year return-on-assets target to 1.1% to 1.4%, which is down from its previous range of 1.3% to 1.6%. It also moderated its annual return-on-equity target to a range of 11% to 14%, down from 12% to 15%.
Sloan made a point at the Bernstein conference to reassure investors that this doesn't mean that it's less optimistic about its future:
In no way shape or form is it an acknowledgement that we're not excited about our ability to grow the business. But it's an acknowledgement that I feel for the next couple years . . . that those are reasonable ranges to operate in. And again these are not aspirational ranges. We're not saying hopefully someday that we'll get there. These are ranges that we feel comfortable about being able to operate in this environment. And even though we've lowered them, and we were very clear that we were doing that, they're still at the high end in the entire industry.